2021, R, 112 min. Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. Starring Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Grace Delrue, Mia Wasikowska, Anders Danielsen Lie, Hampus Nordenson.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 15, 2021
“It’s about how invisible things circulate within a couple.” That sentence, uttered by revered filmmaker Anthony (Roth), may be the most obtuse and on-the-nose line in a film this year, a sign of all the inner contradictions and vagaries of Bergman Island.
That’s how he explains his new script-in-progress to his partner, Chris (Krieps), who is trying to work out how prolific master of angst Ingmar Bergman could make such miserable movies when he seemingly lived a pastoral idyll. “Try this place in fucking January,” Anthony matter-of-factly retorts.
The duo has washed up on the Baltic shores of Fårö, an island you only visit for the fishing or to immerse yourself in the mythos of Ingmar Bergman, whose deeply personal connection to the remote and rock isle has made it both a center of veneration and a hackneyed tourist destination for cineastes and filmmakers. That’s why Anthony and Chris are there, for a filmmaking retreat on the holy ground trod by Bergman, and it’s there that subtle frictions in their relationship are revealed, especially when Chris starts to describe her next film. It’s a psychodrama about a young woman, Amy (Wasikowska), who travels to Fårö for a friend’s wedding, but, much as the retreat is the nominal reason for Anthony and Chris’ stay, ulterior relationship factors are at play.
Bergman Island has little to say about Bergman himself, that all arguably being dealt with through Marie Nyreröd’s epic 2004 interview cycle of the same name. Instead, Hansen-Løve posits Amy’s story as a vaguely veiled commentary on Chris’ situation, inevitably making one wonder what point Hansen-Løve is making, and to whom, with Bergman Island. Where it does touch on the legacy of the director of The Seventh Seal is in exactly that: the legacy, of how filmmakers try to fit themselves into the perception of him, and there’s a dry humor to those observations. There are subtextual dynamics in the casting of Roth (the embodiment of the Americanized Englishman) and Krieps (Luxembourgish, resident in Berlin) that would have played very differently had the original casting of John Turturro and Greta Gerwig remained. That Chris’ Amy (gauche, arrogant) is clearly American injects a specific nuance that having two European actors reframes.
It’s in these kind of details that Bergman Island is most interesting, as a lyrical and languid exploration of how filmmakers use their work as therapy, a weapon, a warning, wish fulfillment, or just a way to process what inadvertent noise is in their head. Hansen-Løve engages with that ephemeral mist of the creative process, letting Chris’ and Amy’s stories collapse in upon themselves. She occasionally pricks the bubble of filmmaker self-obsession through encounters with Fårö islanders utterly unengaged with the whole Bergman mystique. Yet, for all the interesting ideas, Bergman Island (like Fårö itself) is surprisingly small; and, like Chris’ process, it’s deliberately vague and almost passively self-contemplative. It’s not frustrating, but then, it’s not quite that engaging. It may spark a little light self-recognition among filmmakers, and that’s all Hansen-Løve seems to aim for.