Bergman Island – Movie Review

There’s a lovely wind that blows across the island of Fårö. Even in the summer, when Bergman Island is set, the breeze is constant, cool and a little salt-dampened, tousling Chris’ (Vicky Krieps) hair, scudding through the tufts of scraggly dune-grass and sweeping majestically across vast empty spaces. Relatively early on she pitches her husband, Tony (Tim Roth), of a possible script idea; asking him “Do you think it’s a film?” — or at least something that could become a story, if she figures out where to take the characters. It’s a question that could be posed, too, of Bergman Island. Chris, after all, is unmistakably a proxy for Mia Hansen-Løve, the real filmmaker supplying her words and guiding her actions. Tony, though English in that unmistakably Tim Roth way, is likely some version of her real spouse, fellow French writer-director Olivier Assayas. And what happens between them on the fabled Fårö Island, where Hansen-Løve really traveled a few years ago, suggests an experience straining with neither force nor great success to take the shape of a film.

Filmmakers both, Chris and Tony have come, on some combination of vacation and creative retreat, to a place they hope might spark their imaginations: the summer resort island off the coast of Sweden where the towering legend Ingmar Bergman lived and made some of his revered classics. “We’ll be sleeping in the bed where they shot Scenes From a Marriage,” one of them half-quips. But even half-concern is unwarranted: Whatever sparks of conflict exist between these lovers — he doesn’t always listen, she blows off a tour they were supposed to do together — doesn’t always light a fuse for any fireworks. Hansen-Løve, whose wistful work evokes Bergman perhaps only in the occasional reach of its timeline, blessedly never uses the backdrop as an opportunity for homage. No divine spiders, no chess on the beach.

Image via IFC Films

It’s more a story of Chris, a filmmaker in a romantic rut while staying on Fårö, working on a film about Amy (Mia Wasikowska), a filmmaker in a romantic rut while staying on Fårö, made by Mia Hansen-Løve in the wake of her divorce while staying on Fårö. In many ways, this is an auto-auto-auto-fiction that throws out the occasional fun, cinephiliac in-joke, and teases the odd insight into creative blockage and romantic unfulfillment. While also still, falling into the problem of self-deprecating awareness. The first hour or so of Bergman Island proceeds pretty enjoyably, as cinematographer Denis Lenoir’s airy, breezy imagery takes hold, and Chris and Tony get acquainted with the island’s wild natural beauty and with the life story of its most famous resident, of whom both are fans. And every now and then Hansen-Løve shows her precise eye for the skewering detail, particularly in Krieps, who gets plenty of offbeat performance moments — an inexplicable fit of giggles before bedtime; a change in mood that passes over her face like weather; a quasi-seduction that she second-guesses in favor of leaving the room holding a duck ornament, quacking softly.

But just when it seems like the film will amount to be an amiable amble around the island and a bittersweet end-of-relationship tale far gentler than anything the titular Swedish maestro would have conceived, the movie turns even more inward. Chris tells Tony her aforementioned idea for her new screenplay, which we see play out as a film-within-the-film nudged along by Chris’ narration. Amy is a filmmaker who has come to Fårö for a wedding but also to see Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), an ex with whom she supposedly shares much love for, yet their chemistry is a bit rocky.

Image via IFC Films

This fiction then bleeds into reality in both illuminating, and not so illuminating ways. It’s a do-over within a do-over that is a little reminiscent of Hong Sang-soo, while the conversational tone feels in the vein of Eric Rohmer. But, as a said before, she, thankfully, stays away from Bergman homage. In fact, she also doesn’t treat Fårö with total reverence. You could call Bergman Island quizzically quotidian with the share of humor it has with its portraiture: the trivia traded by fans on a so-called “Bergman safari;” the funny idea that an artist so monolithically serious has, in death and legacy, become a tourist destination. Mild playfulness aside, some of this does have the eye-glazing effect of vacation slides. And the film-within-the-film feels relevant to the larger sense here that walking in a giant’s footsteps and hanging in his backyard just made this filmmaker more inclined to be herself. Nonetheless, it also plays like an acknowledgement that maybe a few uneventful days on Fårö weren’t movie enough. Does it fully cohere? Not entirely; it’s more like the halves of two separate films crammed together, as Hansen-Løve uses an incomplete fragment of a narrative to round out a slightly banal, indirect portrait of its creative genesis. And maybe vice versa. There’s a certain sense of grace and enchantment to Bergman Island, but also a certain tenuous quality; the film’s sharp observations bumping up against the fact that it doesn’t exactly seem sure what it wants to be.

Grade: B-

Bergman Island is playing in Select Theaters and available on VOD

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