A trip to the far-off Swedish island of Fårö would be a certain type of cinephile’s dream, and much of the initial pleasure of Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest film are from a sort of art-house armchair tourism. Fårö, of course, was where Ingmar Bergman chose made his home, entranced by its beauty while shooting Through a Glass Darkly. It was also conveniently remote, Bergman was keen for a refuge from intrusive public attention his growing fame was bringing in Stockholm.
Hansen-Løve’s film has Chris (Vikki Krieps) and her older partner Tony (Tim Roth) making a pilgrimage to the island. Tony, a successful movie director, is attending a film festival to showcase has his latest work. Chris has joined him, hoping to find the island an artistic retreat where she can work on her screenplay. She soon sets up her workspace in a windmill in the garden of the large house they are renting for their stay.
As might be expected, there’s much to savour for Bergman fans (like myself). Locations such as the screening room where Bergman watched 35mm prints (now used for the annual Bergman festival), Bergman’s grave, filming locations for Through A Glass Darkly and Persona as well as his pair of fond documentaries about the island, and the strange eroded columns of rock to the north of the island that make such a distinctive backdrop. And towards the end, Bergman’s own house, preserved as it was when he lived there with its book library, massive collection of video cassettes, and his study familiar from Liv Ullmann’s Faithless.
But Bergman Island is much more than just a fan’s indulgence. As befitting its location, Hansen-Løve’s film concerns the complexities of the creative protagonists’ relationship, the anxieties, unspoken resentments, and insensitivities. Seen from Chris’s perspective, there’s a sense of frustration in the pair’s relationship, as much from the age difference and their relative successes as from the mild patriarchal bond. It’s notable that the first thing Chris asks the Bergman experts is not about his films but about Bergman’s well-documented disregard towards nine children from six partners, virtually ignoring them to focus on his prodigious theatre and film work; Chris seems unsettled.
After she (deliberately?) misses her appointment with Tony for a ‘Bergman Safari’ bus tour, a chance platonic yet flirtatious encounter with a young male student seems to unlock Chris’s blocked imagination. It also reignites the uninhibited freedom of her youth that until now seems part-smothered by her relationship with Tony. Like in the great Swedish director’s films, Chris explores her personal anxieties in her creative work, blurring autobiography and storytelling in her screenplay. This includes a lengthy film-within-a film of Chris’s draft screenplay about the happy yet painful abandon of a fleeting love affair; a vibrant Mia Wasikowska plays Chris’s alter-ego, the story a reflection of her own insecurities and melancholy.
As the film progresses, Bergman Island itself begins to blur reality and imagination. Chris wears clothes we’ve previously seen on her fictional alter-ego, real-life characters appear in the fiction, and vice versa. Hansen-Løve handles this well, it never feels confusing and it’s a perfect expression of how reality and art propel, mirror and consume each other.
As usual, Hansen-Løve is great at capturing the exuberence and abandon of youth, and the pain of young emotions, but this is mixed with a melancholy, of moving wistfully away from the hopeful potential of youth towards something more settled and almost constrained.
As in Phantom Thread, Krieps gives a wonderful performance as a young woman determined not to remain in the shadow of her older, more successful partner. But unlike Phantom Thread, this isn’t a microscopically charged examination of control and self-assertion. Instead, Bergman Island is an inward drama, percolating Chris’s emotions around artistry, creativity, expression and love. Tim Roth is also very good as Tony, tender yet often unwittingly insensitive to Chris’s listlessness, calmly enjoying the limelight at the film festival.
But unlike the Bergman films they both adore, this is not a film of high drama, emotional turmoil, angst or doubt. An early quip around them sleeping in the same bedroom that was used for Scenes from a Marriage does not predict fracture or separation. This is a calmer film, lighter, and often very funny. The beautiful cinematography of the similarly beautiful locations (seen in soft colour, often in contrast to Bergman’s B&W movies) lends a tranquil and warm tone.
Mia Hansen-Løve has created a delicate, subtle and very satisfying film that lingers like a fleeting holiday romance.Follow @davefilmblog