Lines in Sand, Found on the Beach: Our Review of ‘Bergman Island’

Lines in Sand, Found on the Beach: Our Review of ‘Bergman Island’

Two filmmakers that I feel I’ve seen woefully few films by, Ingmar Bergman and Mia Hansen-Løve, coalesce in the latter’s seventh feature Bergman Island. I try to make a point to see one Bergman film every year around the time of the first major snowfall. That’s mostly because Bergman’s work feels naturally chilly. I’ve seen very few of his sixty-four features (Letterboxd tells me the total is 5). And this suggests that I haven’t been at this annual tradition for very long.

More importantly, I had seen exactly zero Mia Hansen-Løve films prior to Bergman Island, so most of the auterist implications I’ve gathered are second-hand, at best. However, I love this one. So much so that I’m making a point to check out as many of her films as I possibly can before the end of the year. Supposedly, most are like this, with the perfect balance of simplified drama and emotions.

In Bergman Island, Vicky Krieps plays Chris, a thinly veiled version of Hansen-Løve herself. Staring opposite her is Tim Roth, who plays Chris’ partner Tony. He likely plays a surrogate for the director’s ex—French superstar Olivier Assayas. The pair are both aspiring filmmakers; Tony’s the more commercially successful of the two. Meanwhile, Chris feels at an impasse in both her personal and professional life. As Tony is invited to take part in a Bergman festival on his home island of Fåro, Chris tags along, struggling with an unfinished film. As she mentions, the writing process has been truly excruciating.

Naturally, everyone on Bergman Island has a lot of thoughts on Bergman. Tony is obviously a big fan (just like Assayas), and Chris is too albeit with reservations. She comments on the aforementioned gloominess of his work, and ponders why, possibly, he couldn’t make films that were happy. More importantly, she’s the only one who seems to view Bergman as more than just a cinephile’s measuring contest.

The others at the dinner table view Bergman’s legendary lack of parental involvement as merely another trivial fact that helps explain some of the director’s angst. However, Chris finds it particularly fascinating that he was so distant. Because ultimately, everyone seems to believe that Bergman had to choose between family and art. But Chris, and by extension Hansen-Løve, ponders why one can’t have it all. This is the great thematic thread of Bergman Island: to what extent can an individual find both personal and artistic fulfilment?

Meanwhile, Chris feels suffocated by Tony’s increasing preoccupations. Both filmmakers use this time to work on scripts, but Chris struggles far more deeply than Tony does. In another of Bergman Island’s many real-world parallels, Hansen-Løve has been famously on record about her difficulties with the writing process. It’s a viewpoint espoused by Chris, who writes from a windmill on the property. Inside the very house where Bergman filmed Scenes from a Marriage, Chris and Tony’s relationship grows strained under her unspoken desire to have it all.

Bergman’s films elicit strong emotions, because his films are nothing if not effective at their intended output. While Bergman depicts the blind rapture of adoring male fans as annoying, equally annoying is inverse viewpoint that Bergman was a hack. At one point, someone bitterly describes Bergman as a whiny misanthrope. This character is never seen again. Bergman made films that were personal to him, just as Hansen-Løve does, which was probably the secret to his success. Films after all are about fantasies and emotions.

However, this character does this inside of The White Dress, Chris’ film, which becomes a film within a film in Bergman Island’s transcendent second half. In The White Dress, Amy (Mia Wasikowska) is a woman that Hansen-Løve clearly means to parallel both herself Chris. She has a longstanding yearning for her past lover Joseph (the ridiculously hot Anders Danielsen Lie). When the two meet at a wedding, sparks will fly. However, as Chris mentions their timing was both too early and too late, the timing perpetually against them.

Chris periodically jumps in to narrate The White Dress, but she’s interrupted by Tony’s phone. Krieps has made a career playing women on the verge of a nervous breakthrough. In Phantom Thread it was as woman who needed to find her voice. In Old it was as a woman dealing with an impending divorce. But here on Bergman Island, Krieps puts in a phenomenal performance. It’s one that’s very subtle, and depends on her gazing upon the island, which  Denis Lenoir gloriously films (he also shot Hansen-Løve’s Eden and Things to Come). The better performance, however, is from Wasikowska in the film within a film. I don’t want to spoil the twists of the latter half. But they left me frequently devastated by way that Wasikowska displays the requisite emotions of her character.

Hansen-Løve’s film in no way feels like a Bergman film, save one regard—she too understands that films are about fantasies and emotions. As the fiction of Bergman Island starts to meld with the fiction of The White Dress, the lines between reality and fiction become merely lines in the sandy fjords of Fåro’s beaches. Just because Scenes from a Marriage turned out dour, doesn’t mean that all scenes ultimately do. Sometimes, they quietly ask us to consider who we really are and what we really want.

This post was written by
Thomas Wishloff is currently an MA student at York University. He is new to the Toronto Film Scene, but has periodically written and podcasted for several now defunct ventures, and has probably commented on a forum with you at some point. The ex-Edmontonian has been known to enjoy a good board game, and claims to know the secret to the best popcorn in the world.
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