Bergman Island – Review

“There’s a misty feeling to the movie at times, not distant, but intriguing and enchanting.”

by Ken Bakely

I’m far from the first to say that it’s difficult to communicate the creative process in an intuitive way onscreen; in particular, the intrinsically internalized work of writing is perhaps the hardest. Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island grapples with these challenges, and has the skill and tact to form something wholly engaging and enveloping. In large and small ways, Hansen-Løve interrogates the conscious and unconscious actions of creating, and how memories and experiences become future fodder, ongoing in a wild and endless stream. She externalizes the intensely internal, and delivers a gliding, multilayered meditation on artistry, artists, and how they relate to each other in every sense. The plot starts small, but grows rapidly: the title refers to Fårö, the Swedish island that was the longtime residence of Ingmar Bergman, today an attraction for cinephiles. Visiting are two American filmmakers in a relationship: Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth). She is working on a script and hopes the locale will inspire her, while he is there to present a retrospective. They will necessarily spend much of their time apart, then, and the film’s focus falls immediately on Chris, as she explores the area and writes. 

It’s here where the fascinating interplay between the process and the output begins. Hansen-Løve looks closely at Chris’ journey, eventually springing forth in another way entirely when she describes the plot of her upcoming project and it begins playing before us. We see the thorny story of Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), two former lovers who reconnect in adulthood when attending a friend’s wedding on – where else – Fårö. The would-be movie explores an elusive chase for the past and the intoxicating illusions of nostalgia, all wrapped up in bittersweet emotion and heartrending twists, though Chris says she doesn’t know how it should end. It’s but one complication of many; Bergman Island not only introduces these duelling perspectives, it weaves them together in oblique and explicit ways alike, expertly simulating the soft disillusion that comes from the highly personal work of storytelling. The characters – whether in Chris and Tony’s story or Amy and Joseph’s – have necessarily hazy relations to each other, since it’s clear that as Chris describes her film, it’s in many senses a kind of personal reflection, gently distorted in detail but with a clear basis. The cast excels at this otherwise ill-defined task: Krieps provides quiet but critical anchoring, and in the film-within-a-film Lie and Wasikowska bring to life a deceptively self-contained story, gently pushing at its boundaries in ways that become more apparent as time goes on. Did I mention that Amy is also a filmmaker? 

While Chris might struggle to figure out how that story concludes, Hansen-Løve is not here to tell a linear story of her own. Bergman Island is, above all else, most interested in exploring what it not only means but feels like to engage in that line of work. It’s the kind of amorphous goal that would cause a less confident filmmaker to eventually stumble about, lost, but Hansen-Løve avoids this. There’s a misty feeling to the movie at times, not distant, but intriguing and enchanting. Its ideas linger as mysteries, and the audience is allowed to piece them together and consider them. Hansen-Løve and cinematographer Denis Lenoir capture this well, framing the film’s abundance of bright, sunny exterior settings and picturesque island views with dreamy, nearly fantastical palettes of golden light. This all amounts to something akin to a stroll along an improbably winding, curving path; you could fix yourself firmly on some final destination, but you’d be missing the deeper pleasures here. You’re far better off taking in your surroundings as you see them, observing the hidden details along the way, and enjoying everything at its own value.