Sleeping in the bedroom from Scenes From a Marriage is the relationship equivalent of accepting a challenge to spend the night in a haunted house — an invitation to disaster so obvious that it’s actually funny. Chris (Vicky Krieps, delightful) and Tony (Tim Roth) can’t help but smile when the groundskeeper showing them the house where they’re going to be staying proudly describes its history as part of “the film that made millions of people divorce!” Chris and Tony are both filmmakers themselves, though his is the more established career and the reason they’ve left their child behind to travel to Fårö in Sweden. One of his movies is playing as part of the annual Bergman Week, held on the island that Ingmar Bergman made his home, and he and Chris are taking part in the residency program on the estate to work on their respective next projects while partaking in some of the festival’s offerings, navigating this rarefied world with the comfort of people who’ve come to know it well.
“Scenes from a marriage” wouldn’t be an inaccurate description of how Bergman Island, this quietly splendid new film from Mia Hansen-Løve, begins, even if it’s unclear whether its central couple has bothered to tie the knot. The film begins as one about two people who know each other so well that they’re able to guess how their fights will go and skip right to the aftermath. When Tony asks Chris to join him on a group excursion around various Bergman sights, she ditches him to get an alternate tour from a handsome film student named Hampus (Hampus Nordenson). Tony’s irritated when they meet up later, but also knows full well he was hoping to use Chris as a buffer from some of the more tedious nerdiness he ended up exposed to (“Just because he said it’s a trilogy doesn’t mean it is one,” a sunglassed man intones to general approval at one point). Chris, meanwhile, is sheepish but unapologetic, aware that Tony will be more amused than jealous about what she was up to.
Bergman Island is Hansen-Løve’s English-language debut, though English is more a convenient linguistic common ground than any kind of cultural grounding — Tony is English and Chris is maybe French, while the other attendees are a mix of Scandinavians and people from further afield. The heady film-within-a-film that Chris has been working on focuses on Amy (Mia Wasikowska), who’s American, and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), who’s Norwegian, former lovers who are reunited at an equally international wedding that is, conveniently, on Fårö, though it’s more concerned with ABBA than with Ingmar. Like her former partner Olivier Assayas, Hansen-Løve has dabbled in films about characters who feel unmoored from any particular place of origin. For Assayas, this has beget woozy thrillers like Demonlover and Boarding Gate that are right on the edge of sci-fi, while Hansen-Løve has tended to focus more on the longing that can accompany this imperfect freedom.
The apex of her EDM drama Eden is an ecstatic trip to New York that gives its characters a taste of touring, while the best scene in the otherwise disappointing Maya is one in which its recuperating war correspondent speaks to a colleague on Skype, the two friends showing each other the views from the rooms, thousands of miles apart. Technology and air travel and the right passports can make great distances feel deceptively simple to navigate, but it’s only art that attempts to bridge the vast stretches between souls. As Bergman Island slips between the wry, restrained comedy of Bergman Week and the glorious emotions of the romantic interlude between Amy and Joseph, the space between the life that Chris is living and the film she’s writing starts to seem painfully eloquent. The story of Amy and Joseph is about an unresolvable love between people with lives and partners at home who nevertheless can’t seem to keep apart, and it’s awash with yearning and guaranteed heartbreak no matter what happens.
By contrast, whatever fire existed for Tony and Chris has long ago died, leaving behind affection and understanding, but nothing that resembles the grand emotions present in the film Chris is trying to make. Maybe that groundskeeper was onto something and the couple’s sojourn in the Scenes From a Marriage room is highlighting an impending split. If it is, though, it won’t be a spectacular six-episode flameout, but a more respectful acknowledgment that things have reached a natural end. In its glimpse into the lives of partnered-up fictional directors, Bergman Island invites its viewer to guess how much it’s a reflection of Hansen-Løve’s actual relationship, while also acknowledging the gap between the art someone makes and the person they are. “I like a certain coherence. I don’t like it when artists I love don’t behave well in real life,” Chris says over dinner with Tony and some Bergmanites, while bemoaning the fact that Bergman’s body of work came at the expense of his family. “Bergman was as cruel in his art as in his life,” someone at the table observes, but Bergman Island is all about how much messier and mysterious the connection between both can be.
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