Mia Hansen-Løve Blurs Life and Fiction with Bergman Island
NYFF 2021: Bergman Island Review
Memory is a type of fiction we construct as fact. There’s the past and there’s how we remember it. For Mia Hansen-Løve, filmmaking allows her to recreate her memories—her work is the result of a conversation between fiction and life. Instead of just presenting the result, Bergman Island also offers the conversation.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why Hansen-Løve’s films often share such similar DNA. A female protagonist must break free of her dependency on a male figure by escaping to a breathtaking location. In Goodbye First Love, her heroine escapes to Haute-Loire to get over a young love and in Things to Come, she sends Isabelle Hupert to a farm on the French mountainside to shake off a cheating husband. In Bergman Island, the writer/director uses her filmmaker couple, Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), to convey the idea “we spend all our lives saying the same thing but from different perspectives.”
The Swedish island of Fårö, a.k.a. Bergman Island, is famous for being the home of celebrated director Ingmar Bergman. The small island in the Baltic Sea is vast and pristine with beaches, fields, and forest. While Bergman used the island as an austere backdrop for many of his films, it is the prism through which Hansen-Løve tells her story. Despite the enormity of Bergman’s presence, she is able to create something singular and fresh. She presents a compelling meta-narrative that twists around and through itself like an Escher staircase or a Swedish cardamom bun.
A familiarity with Bergman’s work elucidates the references in Hansen-Løve’s screenplay but is by no means necessary. The screenplay telegraphs the fact that this guy is a big fucking deal, which sufficiently informs the audience who may not be familiar with Bergman. Cinema geeks may fawn over the inherent tour of the Swedish director’s home, but Hansen-Løve also takes time to jab at the way they pontificate and make pedantic observations.
Impressed by her performance in The Phantom Thread, Hansen-Løve cast Krieps as her meta-stand-in, Chris. Chris and Tony seek inspiration from Fårö for their respective projects. Though Hansen-Løve says her screenplay nearly wrote itself, Chris suffers the pain and frustration she usually experiences during the writing process. Krieps, a last-minute hire when Greta Gerwig dropped out to direct Little Women, plays Chris with the sadness of a navigator with a broken compass. She looks out into the world, longing to find an answer she feels is right in front of her face but remains opaque. Working separately, Tony appears to have no trouble conceiving his next work.
Roth provides a subdued performance that gives Tony a distance while remaining caring and understanding. One of Roth’s signature qualities is the quiet confidence he exudes that also seems like it could shatter at any moment. When Chris looks to Tony for answers and clarity, he deploys that vulnerability as he attempts to offer advice or steer her in a new direction.
While Tony goes on a “Bergman Safari” tour, Chris unexpectedly embarks on her own journey with Hampus (Hampus Nordenson), a student who is also staying on the island. As the two explore the more hidden corners of Fårö, Chris opens up with playful glee.
Her jaunt around the island affords her the inspiration she was seeking. Hansen-Løve is enamored with the liberating force of nature. Its awe and grandeur provide a salubrious perspective to her characters that unlock the confines of their dependence.
On a walk, Chris tells the story she’s devised to Tony. It’s about a girl named Amy (Mia Wasikowska) who goes to a wedding on Bergman Island that an old flame, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) is also attending. It’s here that Hansen-Løve suddenly shifts the narrative to Chris’s story. Amy and Joseph’s affair re-ignites on the island though they are not on the same page about where their relationship should go.
That familiar affection is also present in the way Hansen-Løve and her director of photography, Denis Lenoir, capture the breathtaking Swedish island. Though she is not a fan of the format, she and Lenoir decided on shooting in scope, which gave them a wider aspect ratio to display the captivating horizons the island offers. The travelogue qualities are an escapist respite for an audience that’s been in quarantine and restricted from traveling for over a year. The wedding scene has a warm nostalgia to it. Even the save-the-date-weary cohort will yearn for the nights when we all got together, dressed up, and danced the night away.
From there, the layers of the nesting doll begin to fuse. The framing device of Chris’s storytelling and the story of Amy begin to intertwine. Characters from one storyline begin to appear in another. The anachronisms heighten until it reaches a surreal nexus as the line between Hansen-Løve’s film and Chris’s (or was it Amy’s?) becomes blurred.
The convoluted storylines are a bit of a gambit but the payoff in their impressionistic depiction of Hansen-Løve’s creative process. That method, a feedback loop of fiction and life, is messy and unclear; as are our heartbreaks and the memories we have of them.
The 59th New York Film Festival begins Friday, September 24, and ends on Sunday, October 10. Follow our coverage here!