Bergman Island ★★1/2
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Bergman Slept Here
If you can tolerate its slow pace (you’ll be tempted to make popcorn without hitting the pause button) and the too-frequent scenes of people riding bicycles on rural roads and women gathering inspiration from oceanside walks, “Bergman Island” offers more than a little to ponder. It takes up issues that include gender’s role in the creative process, women’s frustration with men, and the culture of celebrity.
Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) with their Bergman house in back.
The film opens with Tony (Tim Roth), an established filmmaker, and his much younger companion, Chris (Vicky Krieps), an erstwhile screenwriter, arriving at the small Swedish island of Fårö, where Ingmar Bergman lived and died, and shot several of his films, a place now sustaining its economy on Bergman lore and myth, i.e., tourism. The bed in the AirBnB Chris and Tony rent was used in “Scenes from a Marriage” (the 1973 Swedish TV mini-series), which “caused millions to divorce,” their host explains to them, an ominous statement.
Tony sets up at a second-floor desk in the guest house and soon fills his notebook with pages of ideas and some erotic drawings, a hint, one imagines, that Tony’s schluppy ordinariness may conceal something more interesting, even perverse. Chris chooses her spot in the nearby windmill (perhaps an early distancing from Tony) and struggles to write even a few lines. “Calm and perfection” is his take on their writers’ retreat; “oppressive” is hers.
Tony is the celebrity of the two—it’s understood that his films are Bergmanesque in their focus on women—and when, to considerable adulation, he attends a screening of one of his films or participates in the weekly ”Bergman Safari,” she’s off doing her own thing (some of those bike rides), including a bit of harmless fun and surfside flirtation with Hampus (Hampus Nordenson), a very young and gawky Swede (“his clumsiness has its charm”). The script derives some needed levity from Chris’s romps around the island with Hampus and from critiques of Bergman-mania: Bibi Andersson sunglasses; a busload of tourists trying to imagine the façade of a house Bergman built for a film, but no longer there; a wedding participant imitating and mocking Bergman as the deep thinker.
Later (perhaps too much later), we’ll learn, in detail, that Chris’s island adventures have a creative result, yielding a partial outline of her script. Her narration of the outline takes the not-so-novel form of the “film within a film” (recall “Black Bear” and “The Souvenir [Part One],” both 2021), which occupies at least the middle third of the film.
Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie)
tries to resist the temptations
of Amy (Mia Wasikowska).
Chris’s film, too, is set on Bergman Island, though with new actors: Amy (Mia Wasikowska, “Alice in Wonderland” 2010) plays opposite Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), who are guests at a wedding. Amy and Joseph, clearly sexually attracted to each other, have had an intense, off-and-on, previous relationship. Married mother Amy, overcome by passion and arguably bad judgment—one could describe her behavior as that of a seductive stalker—wants Joseph (who has a girlfriend) to commit to her, an act he sees as a “betrayal.” In a reversal of typical gender roles, Joseph tells Amy she can love two men and want children by them at the same time; he, on the other hand, cannot be in multiple relationships.
All the women in the film are disappointed by the men in their lives. Like Joseph, who succumbs to Amy’s allure and yet pulls away often and at delicate moments, Tony fails to give Chris the advice and guidance she needs, not to mention the self-confidence and inspiration one would expect from a partner. He prefers to bask in his mini-celebrity, takes phone calls while she’s describing her screen play, and refuses to indulge her plea that she help him with the ending, for which she has penciled in the standard film school fallback: a suicide, or maybe two.
In the larger sweep of things, Chris is supposed to fall in love with and be nurtured by Tony’s mind (he’s a much older, not very attractive man), but Tony utterly fails to apply his talents to their relationship. He’s a bit like Bergman, as the film points out, who had 9 children he barely knew with 5 different women and cared principally about his own work. A third couple, introduced in the final few minutes, play out a similar theme. All the men are somewhat cold and removed.
Two couples - emotionally charged women and cold men -
play out their relationships in a tourist-driven
Bergman setting, Fårö Island, Sweden.
The film has autobiographical content. Like Chris and Tony, French-Danish director (and writer) Mia Hansen-Løve and Oliver Assayas, her former longtime partner, the older and famous French filmmaker, never married and have one child. At a Cannes Film Festival press conference for “Bergman Island,” Hansen-Løve framed the film as an effort to understand what it was that allowed her to do what seemed so very difficult, even “miraculous”: “to manage to write a screenplay, to make a film.” To complete the picture, she might have mentioned—as would seem to be obvious from her film—the men who could have helped, but did not.
This truth would have made for a more spirited press conference, but it’s not enough to generate the dramatic heat required to sustain a film—or, in this case, two of them. Nor does writer’s block contribute significantly to the narrative, even with the catharsis (the film within the film) that follows. Long walks on an empty beach don’t reveal much, nor does a tour of Bergman’s home, complete with a wistful moment in the “inspiration room.” One wishes that the erotic gestures in Tony’s notebook were an early plant, ready in the wings to invigorate the drama. But they remain drawings on a page, rather than a reflection of a different Tony that can move us—and motivate Chris.
The men in Chris’s/Mia’s/Amy’s life may be disappointing and unhelpful, but as protagonists in a film they are also somewhat boring. A bike ride—even a bike ride in a soaking rain—is not enough. The current trend to make films about one’s creative process, of a piece with the fascination with memoir (add “The Tender Bar”  to the two films noted above), may be appealing to film critics who dwell in that world, and it attracted a cadre of accomplished international actors here, but does not great movies make.
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
Starring: Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska, Anders Danielsen Lie, Hampus Nordenson
Other Awards: 5 nominations to date, including the director for Palme d’Or
Runtime: 112 minutes
Countries: France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Mexico
Language: English, French, Swedish (non-English languages subtitled in English)