I’ve been inexplicably drawn to the morose, melancholy mind-fuckery of Ingmar Bergman’s movies for more than half of my life. I find few directors more fascinating, few movies that make me feel as simultaneously sick and ecstatic, like I’ve just sucked down a bunch of seawater on a beguilingly rocky beach. Many people in my life have sunnier dispositions or are perhaps less preoccupied by the abyss, and tend to groan when asked to sit through the Trilogy of Faith. Why do I like watching films about suicidal women in nightgowns having psychosexual dreams about their sisters? Why am I so drawn to stories about women on the brink of madness, roaming the craggy Swedish seaside babbling about their sexually abusive fathers?
Thankfully, Mia Hansen-Løve has explained me to myself via Bergman Island. The film, which is Hansen-Løve’s seventh, premiered at Cannes to rapturous reviews and the quiet tears of at least one non-film-critic who is nonetheless tasked with writing about festival movies. Filmed on location on Faro, the island where Bergman made many of his most famous movies and where he lived until his death in 2007, Bergman Island is a delicate, haunting little Russian doll of a movie. The story begins with filmmakers Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) traveling by plane and ferry to Faro for a writer’s residency, where Tony will also host screenings and panels about his own work while both partners ostensibly start new scripts. It’s clear off the bat that Tony is the more confident and famous of the two (and, it’s suggested via some bondagelike doodles in his notebook and footage from one of his screenings, is perhaps a misogynist hiding behind a slew of films with “strong female protagonists”), while Chris is more of a niche indie director who’s still searching for her artistic identity.
As soon as the two arrive on the lush little wonderland of Faro, it’s apparent that there are cracks in their foundation: After remarking on the fact that they’re sleeping in the same room where Bergman filmed Scenes From a Marriage (as the groundskeeper puts it, the project that caused “millions of divorces”), Chris ditches one of Tony’s panels to take a solo bike ride; Tony petulantly goes on the Bergman Safari alone while Chris gently flirts with a Swedish film student-slash-groundskeeper. The fractures extend even deeper, with the two appearing to be out of sync about the responsibilities an artist has toward their family and domestic life.
In an early scene, the pair go to dinner with some of the island’s caretakers and curators and get into a small debate about Bergman’s absentee fathering — how he alienated himself from the nine children he had with five women. Chris wonders aloud if it’s possible to have a “great body of work and raise a family at the same time,” and she expresses frustration with Bergman’s behavior. “I don’t like when artists I love don’t behave well in real life,” she says. Tony seems disinterested in the conversation; it’s not a question he’s ever asked himself, despite the fact that he and Chris have a young daughter together. One of the curators dispassionately tells Chris, “Bergman was as cruel in his life as he was in his art.”
When the couple arrives back at one of Bergman’s cottages that evening, they try to come to an agreement over which Bergman print to watch in his private screening room. Tony hates the Seventh Seal; Chris loves Summer of Monika. “I want nice Bergman,” says Chris, but the only nice Bergman is Fanny and Alexander, which Tony “knows by heart.” Hour of The Wolf is out — that’s the “one where a kid gets his head bashed on a boulder.” The projectionist offers up a rare print of Cries and Whispers, the one where the trio of sisters slowly destroy one another’s lives and/or die. “You wanted nice Bergman,” cracks Tony after the screening to a visibly shaken Chris.
As Bergman Island progresses, we see Chris finally struck by inspiration for a new script, which she details to a barely interested Tony, who can’t for the life of him understand why writing is “so hard” for her. Chris’s fledgling film, The White Dress, follows Amy (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman traveling to Faro for a college friend’s wedding, where she runs into Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), her ex-lover. Amy, like Chris, is a filmmaker, Bergman fanatic, and mother; it’s obvious that Amy is a Chris avatar in the same way that Chris is a Hansen-Løve avatar, and that all three directors are using the island of Faro and Bergman’s filmography as a lens through which to examine larger questions about inspiration, creativity, the contrasting expectations placed on male and female artists, love, partnership, and infidelity. (The movie becomes increasingly meta as it moves forward, but I won’t spoil that for you.) Over the course of Chris’s The White Dress, several men condescend to Amy about her love for Bergman, and, more implicitly, her credibility as an artist and a filmmaker. Back in Chris and Tony’s world, a group of men participate in a sort of unofficial dick-swinging contest over which of them knows Bergman’s work best. (I laughed out loud when one of them interrupted an argument about Bergman’s Winter Light, The Silence, and Through a Glass Darkly with, “Just because he called it a trilogy doesn’t mean it is.”)
Of course, Hansen-Løve’s movie isn’t about Ingmar Bergman, at least not entirely. It’s much more personal, much more inwardly exploratory for the filmmaker. (It’s full of delicious low-key shade toward her former partner Olivier Assayas). As both a Bergman head and a writer who’s often trying to draw blood from a stone without alienating myself from the people I love, I could understand the magnetic pull she felt toward his void. I was hypnotized by the way she wonders about female artistry — about all of the directions we’re tugged in and the standards to which we hold ourselves — and about who gets to claim ownership over certain works of art or, more broadly, film itself. In the movie-within-the-movie, the groom, on a rant, tells Amy that his grandparents used to see Bergman at the grocery store on Faro, and that he was “terribly unpleasant.” Amy smiles, bemused. “Maybe,” she says, “he just didn’t like grocery shopping.”
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