Review: Bergman Island

Bergman Island (2021)
Writer & Director: Mia Hansen-Løve

Bergman Island is a movie for Bergman fans, and so I’ll lay my cards on the table: Fanny and Alexander is one of my all-time favorite movies, something I like to put on every year around the holidays. I also love Scenes from a Marriage, and recently watched the new gender-swapped HBO adaptation, starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. HBO’s version, directed by Hagai Levi, is a Very Serious Homage, an attempt to make something as wrenching and honest at the original. Mostly, it feels like a showcase for the two leads, and while I appreciated it, I didn’t necessarily look forward to watching it. Bergman Island is a much more enjoyable tribute, one that questions Bergman’s legacy and even pokes fun, but doesn’t denigrate it. Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, it zooms in on a filmmaking couple, Chris and Tony, (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) who attend an artist’s retreat on Fårö, an island off the coast of Gotland, Sweden, where Bergman lived and which he often used as a filming location. It’s a movie about filmmaking, marriage, and the relationship that female artists have with the Great Men who have inspired them. I loved it for its playfulness, for its honest grappling with Bergman’s filmography, and for Vicky Krieps’s restless, mischievous portrayal of a female artist trying to break free of her male influences.

We meet Chris and Tony as they are making their way to Fårö, first on a small, chartered plane, then on a ferry, and finally on a bumpy car ride through the country to Bergman’s estate, where they are greeted by a smiley Swedish woman who cheerfully tells them they will be sleeping in the bedroom where Scenes from a Marriage was filmed—a TV series, she adds, that famously caused the divorce rate in Sweden to spike. As soon as the woman leaves, Chris tells Tony that cannot sleep in that room. Tony’s mild reply is that they have no choice unless they want to sleep separately. He’s clearly less intimidated by Bergman’s ghosts and gets down to work immediately. Chris, meanwhile, moons about in her studio doing not much of anything. I get a little antsy with plotlines about writer’s block, and in the first act, I was a bit worried that the entire movie would be about Chris’s failure to create while Tony blithely scribbles away. Although there were some interesting gender dynamics at play, I really didn’t want to watch them fight a la Scenes from a Marriage. Thankfully, they don’t. Instead, Chris tests Tony in various ways, while Tony ignores in various ways. Sometimes that means ignoring his hurt feelings, other times it means ignoring hers. The interplay between them is subtle and a lot goes unsaid, but it plays as comic because their bond is secure.

Chris finally starts writing after Tony tells her—in a vague, secretive way—that he’s mining their marital dynamic for material for his new movie. That lights a competitive fire, and Chris quickly outlines a screenplay, which she then relays to Tony when they are on a walk together. As she describes her idea, the film she’s envisioning unfolds before us—a romantic story about an ex-boyfriend and girlfriend in their late twenties (portrayed, in her mind’s eye, by Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielson Lie) who rekindle their love at a friend’s wedding. The movie takes place on Fårö and incorporates details from Chris’s short time on the island. It’s a story of pent-up sexual frustration that reflects an aspect of Chris and Tony’s marriage, but I also read it as portrait of Chris’s pent-up creativity. Krieps is a tall, athletic-looking actress who bikes or swims in almost every scene and clearly has energy to spare. But it’s not as easy for her as it is for Tony to channel her passion into imaginary worlds. She doesn’t seem to have the same confidence as Tony, both because she’s not as well-known, and because her relationship to Bergman is not as straightforward as Tony’s. She can’t see herself as following in Bergman’s footsteps in quite the same way; in Bergman’s time, she would have been his wife, mistress, or muse, not a fellow filmmaker. And on top of everything, she really misses her daughter—more than Tony, it seems.

Krieps’s performance is very similar to her role in P.T. Anderson’s The Phantom Thread, in which she plays Alma, a woman whose power and creative influence is underestimated by the fashion designer who makes her his model. I find it interesting that Phantom Thread is made by a man, and Bergman Island by a woman, because I’ve always read Phantom Thread as a movie about P.T. Anderson’s creative impulses, and his recognition that at the heart of his work is an unknowable, and perhaps destructive feminine spirit that he feels he must succumb to. With Bergman Island, we have a female director wrestling with her creative process, one that involves her shedding gendered expectations and maybe giving a finger to some of her male influences. And in fact, there’s a scene in Chris’s movie in which one of the male wedding guests delivers an anti-Bergman rant that ends with “Fuck Bergman!”

So let us return to Bergman. His relationship to women has always been messy and important. He reminds me of Chekhov, a writer who loved women, especially actresses, and wrote great, complex, roles for them to play on stage. Bergman was similarly besotted with his actresses and created indelible roles for them—I, for one, will never get over Liv Ullman in the original Scenes from a Marriage. And yet, as Hansen-Løve makes explicit in an exchange of dialogue, Bergman seems like he was kind of a jerk in real life, a guy who fathered nine children with six different women (some of them actresses he directed) and who was not especially involved with any of their upbringing. He was also known for using details from his personal life for his work, sometimes poaching from diary entries and private conversations. There seems to be a contradiction at the heart of such a man, an artist who derives so much inspiration from women, but who ignores the needs of women in his personal life. Hansen-Løve acknowledges the unfairness of this double standard, but she also recognizes that all artists, regardless of gender, must feed off the people around them in a way that isn’t always mutually beneficial. Hansen-Løve not only asks what this looks like when women do it, but what it looks like within a marriage where both partners are creative. Crucially, she wants to know what happens when the marriage is basically functional—something Bergman never attempted, perhaps because it was beyond his imagination.

Underlying this story about two artists at work is Fårö itself, an island that has been transformed by Bergman’s creative instincts, and by the films he made there. Bergman loved Fårö, it seems, because it was far from the world, a place for him to retreat into his work. The irony is that Bergman’s output made Fårö a more worldly place, a tourist attraction with “Bergman safaris” that take visitors on a tour of his filming locations. Hansen-Løve mines this contradiction, showing how fact and fiction can collapse when you visit a place that first became real in your imagination. The line between fantasy and reality was one that Bergman was fascinated by, and maybe a little frightened of, although Fanny and Alexander, his last movie, is a love letter to the theater and the joys of imagination. “Why couldn’t more of his films have been like Fanny and Alexander?” Chris wonders. As silly as that question may be, I’ve wondered the same thing. There is a self-seriousness to some of Bergman’s movies that make them difficult to revisit. Even Scenes from a Marriage is not one you want to return to on a regular basis. With its sun-drenched cinematography, warm colors, and sly sense of humor, maybe the best thing about Bergman Island is that it is really nothing like a Bergman movie, except for its locations.

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