“Bergman Island” is one of those movies that I had to watch twice before I could really start to grasp its intricacies. There’s no doubt that writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve’s movie has a lot for film fans to chew on. Set on Fårö, the Swedish island where the legendary director Ingmar Bergman lived, worked, and was inspired by, “Bergman Island” is peppered with beautiful shots of Bergman’s home, references to his films, and information about his life. But as ever-present as Bergman is in this movie, it isn’t actually about him. With “Bergman Island,” Hansen-Løve uses the place that was the most important to one of cinema’s most revered icons to explore the relationship between love and artistry.
She accomplishes this through Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), a filmmaking couple who travel to Fårö for the summer in the hope that it will inspire their writing. Chris and Tony immediately appear to be well-matched, but it’s also quickly obvious that their work and their relationship don’t exactly coexist. When they arrive at one of Bergman’s houses, where they will be staying, Chris claims the windmill, separate from the main house, as her work place, saying that she will be available to see Tony and wave at him from the window. Throughout the rest of the first hour of the film, the pair spend more time exploring the island separately than together, Tony touring with the Bergman Safari (a real thing, apparently!) and attending a screening of one of his films, and Chris meeting up with a local, who takes her to sites like Bergman’s grave.
In the second half of the film, Hansen-Løve introduces the movie-within-a-movie element, as Chris describes to Tony a screenplay she has been working on. In this story, Mia Wasikowska plays Amy, a young woman visiting Fårö (or an island like it, as Chris speculates) for a wedding, where she reconnects with a lost love from her childhood (Joseph, played by Anders Danielsen Lie). Amy, like Chris, is a filmmaker, and while the attraction between her and Joseph never went away, their lives never intersected at the right times for their relationship to ever become anything more permanent. Few things convey this more than the white dress that Amy brought to wear to the wedding, a dress vaguely reminiscent of a bride’s that is donned and discarded over and over again.
In large part because of the length of this movie-within-a-movie segment, “Bergman Island” sometimes feels like different movies that don’t entirely connect. But Hansen-Løve manages to pull it all together with a final act that, while perhaps adding too many layers to the story too late in the game, further blurs the lines between fiction and reality in the film’s most Bergman-esque quality. Chris’ first love inspires her story which inspires Amy’s story within the story. The parallel love stories feel like they are neither racing toward a breakup nor a reconciliation, but more like an understanding. With her film, a “Scenes From a Marriage” for creatives, Hansen-Løve examines the possibilities of a creative couple successfully sharing a relationship, and the answer isn’t always simple. The sharing of ideas is desirable, but as Chris demonstrates when she becomes frustrated that she tells Tony everything about her work and he doesn’t tell her anything, that isn’t always productive. They both want the other to be there for them but also can’t reciprocate. Some time and space apart from each other despite all they share is required.
The entire cast is in top form, but Krieps and Wasikowska, from whose perspective much of the film’s story is told, deliver particularly noteworthy performances. They are both adept at conveying their characters’ feelings of frustration, loneliness, and longing, feelings that more often than not walk hand-in-hand. It’s especially wonderful to hear and see Krieps as Chris working through her story about Amy as she describes it to Tony, throwing out ideas and thoughts that she hasn’t set in stone, from the story’s location to Amy’s age.
“Bergman Island” unfolds slowly (it is, after all, a movie of the walking-and-talking variety) but rapturously, and when it isn’t pulling you in on the strength of its characters, its wrapping you in the dreamy beauty of the Fårö landscape. That location in and of itself further serves as a representation of the merging of fiction and reality; as we see from the comments of Chris, Tony, and other tourists with locals throughout the film, the Fårö that they are in at the moment isn’t the exact place it was in Bergman’s films. Throw in a couple of humorous scenes demonstrating the insufferable nature of some white male film nerds, and I’m sold. “Bergman Island” may not be about Ingmar Bergman, and it isn’t even exactly a homage to him, but he’s a huge part of this story all the same, with Hansen-Løve skillfully carrying on his legacy in the place that shaped him the most.
“Bergman Island” will open in theaters on October 15 and will be available to watch on demand on October 22. Runtime: 112 minutes. Rated R.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.