Having premiered at Cannes last year, Mia Hansen-Løve’s eighth feature makes its way onto UK screens. Bergman Island is at once an ambivalent love-letter to the Swedish master director Ingmar Bergman and a charming study of the complexities of relationships, the creative process, and the ways that one invariably influences the other.
Filmmaker Chris (Vicky Krieps) and husband Tony (Tim Roth) arrive on Fårö – nicknamed ‘Bergman Island’ for the director’s long-time residency there – as a writing retreat. The couple, amicable and affectionate with each other, branch off to do their own things. Chris is working on her screenplay while Tony hosts a directing masterclass and a screening of one of his films at the Bergman Center.
With their gently swaying pace, the film’s early sequences are reminiscent of the relaxed first act of Richard Linklater’s trilogy-capper Before Midnight. But, unlike that film, the relaxed tone never really threatens to tip over into disharmony, even after Chris connects with an interesting young student she meets when exploring the island alone. Chris’ discovery of Tony’s notebook, full of fetishised sketches of women, is not exposed so much as it is sublimated into the psychological texture of the film; a discovery that is not quite resolved, not quite repressed.
It’s in the second act, where Bergman Island moves into a film-within-a-film drawn from Chris’ draft script, that Hansen-Løve shifts into the overtly psychological and untended desires rise to the surface. The student with whom Chris made a connection appears as a minor character, while the fictional Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (The Worst Person in the World’s Anders Danielsen Lie), rekindle an old romance under the noses of their current partners.
Multiple personas; relationships coming apart at the seams; it’s all very, well, Bergman. But Hansen-Løve resists the Swedish director’s darkness by poking fun at him, primarily by pointing out that his treatment of women in real life was significantly less than admirable. Yet the smug male student who declares his disdain of Bergman to a wearied Amy gives short shrift to arch posers, and suggests that admiration of a text needn’t presuppose approval of the author.
It’s Bergman himself around whom the film’s characters revolve, propelled by something that we might have called unresolved tension – if it wasn’t so ambivalent. Pulling out from the centre are Amy and Joseph, in pain and in love, torn between their desires and not wanting to hurt their partners; pulling back further reveals Chris and Tony, happy, successful, not without their difficulties but tempered by maturity and age. The film itself stands in conscious contrast to Bergman’s oeuvre; his darkness and his treatment of women are sublimated but tempered. Instead, Hansen-Løve suggests that life may well imitate art but one needn’t define the other.