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Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2021)
Early in Bergman Island—the sixth feature from French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve—a character refers to Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage as “the film that made millions of people divorce.” This much-cited, apocryphal correlation is delivered with tongue-in-cheek levity, but the underlying implication is profound: by intimately modeling one possible method for navigating the problem of marriage, Bergman’s searing dramatic opus might have encouraged its viewers to reevaluate their own circumstances, and consider what might happen if they, too, were to follow a similar course. Bergman Island invokes an Ingmar who would have embraced the attribution—a thinker and visionary of immense ambition and intellect whose uncompromising commitment to his art came, presumably, at the expense of his nine children and their six mothers.
The film opens with Chris (Vicky Krieps) and her longtime partner Tony (Tim Roth), both filmmakers, arriving at the Swedish island of Fårö—a bright, idyllic vacation spot where Bergman spent much of the latter half of his life and produced a number of his most celebrated films. Chris and Tony are embarking on a prestigious summer artist residency at the Bergman Center, and the great auteur’s absent presence imposes itself from the film’s first minutes. Over a meal with Bergman Foundation staff, Chris and Tony discuss Bergman’s fraught family life, and Chris poses the film’s central question bluntly: “Do you think you can create a great body of work and raise a family at the same time?” She is troubled by the burden that Bergman, indulging a single-minded dedication to his work, imposed on his romantic partners and his offspring, just as she’s troubled by Bergman’s unrelenting fascination with dysfunction and despair. “Why didn’t he ever once want to explore happiness?,” she wonders. And later, speaking with Tony after a private screening of 1972’s Cries and Whispers: “I just hope he had more fun in his life than in his movies.”
These aren’t idle questions. Chris, who’s in the early stages of developing a new screenplay, has an occupational and emotional investment in trying to understand the origins and effects of Bergman’s genius. Throughout their shared pilgrimage, the question of the wellness of Chris and Tony’s marriage, and its effect on Chris’s work in particular, is unspoken but ever-present. When the couple are invited to sleep in the marital bed that featured prominently in Scenes from a Marriage, Chris is rattled, not because she’s superstitious, but because she takes the substance of Bergman’s art seriously as a source of insight into her own reality. Turning her body away from Tony’s in the same spot where Liv Ullmann’s Marianne embraced and recoiled from Erland Josephson’s Johan, Chris is confronted with the full force of Bergman’s anecdotal vision, and Krieps elegantly telegraphs the impossibility of shielding her own marriage from scrutiny in these environs.
Then, rather abruptly, the focus shifts: the second half of Bergman Island is concerned almost entirely with the film that Chris is beginning to write. We start to access the mechanics of her creative practice when she describes the project to Tony, her words doubling as voiceover narration for extended sequences that we understand to be illustrations of Chris’s narrative mind’s-eye—and which are indistinguishable, in tone and style, from the framing narrative. The film-within-the-film follows a slightly younger woman, Amy (Mia Wasikowska), who has a painful, passionate reunion with her first love, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), during a trip to Fårö for a friend’s wedding. As Chris relates the plot, she confides in Tony about her process. She hasn’t decided how the story will end, she confesses. Tony listens with sincere interest, but his own professional commitments intrude frequently, claiming his attention. An ellipsis follows their conversation, and the story lines merge in a metafictional epilogue: Chris, wandering through Bergman’s house, encounters Joseph—or rather, as it turns out, the actor she’s cast to play the role of Joseph. Some time has passed since the residency, and she’s now on Fårö again, shooting the film she had described to Tony, apparently experiencing a creative fertility akin to Bergman’s mythic example.
This explicit conjuring of film’s reflexive power is a winking gesture toward Hansen-Løve’s own mode of unambiguously personal filmmaking. Much has been made of how her films refract and resonate with details of her biography, and how a philosophy of filmmaking as a therapeutic process informs her methods. Throughout her career, Hansen-Løve has used cinematic invention as a means to explore personal histories from a wistful remove. Here, she’s interrogating this reputation with a deceptively playful, utterly assured act of introspection into her own artistic practice. If Amy is a fictional projection of Chris, then Chris is a projection of Hansen-Løve. Amy’s struggle to exorcise a past love—the one that got away—mirrors Chris’s efforts to coax a new film out of the raw material of her private experience. The function of Hansen-Løve’s art is to suggest that the two pursuits are one and the same.
For Chris and for Hansen-Løve, Bergman’s influence isn’t so much a matter of artistic inspiration as it is a case study, exemplifying one strategy for moving through life as an artist. By inhabiting the master’s corner of the world (if only in the hermetic context of a summer getaway), Chris can encounter the ambient legacy of his priorities, and contemplate her own circumstances in this new light. By the end of the film, the question of whether Chris’s marriage is a happy one has faded to near insignificance; her art, and her ability to navigate its intersections with the other parts of herself, are what’s at stake. The retreat has served its purpose, allowing Chris to escape into and luxuriate in her creative work, just as Bergman did. While the particulars of Chris and Tony’s domestic configuration are never spelled out in detail, the epilogue gestures at a utopian arrangement in which Chris is enabled to inhabit the fullness of her roles as mother, wife, and artist with purpose and conviction—and without compromise.
Madeline Whittle is Programming Assistant at Film at Lincoln Center and a freelance translator. Her film writing has appeared in Film Comment and The Brooklyn Rail.