CAST: Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska, Anders Danielsen Lie, Hampus Nordenson, Anki Larsson, Kerstin Brunnberg, Melinda Kinnaman, Stig Björkman, Joel Spira, Clara Strauch, Matthew Lessner
RUNNING TIME: 112 mins
BASICALLY…: A writing couple (Krieps and Roth) retreat to an island where filmmaker Ingmar Bergman once worked…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Ingmar Bergman, one of the most respected filmmakers of all time, is something of an acquired taste: he’s either a visual and diegetic genius to some, or a pretentious source of endless misery to others. Whichever category you fall into, there’s no denying the impact that the Swedish auteur left upon the world, particularly other creatives hoping to follow in his footsteps.
That being said, framing a movie around such creatives with Bergman’s presence all around them might at first seem tedious and exceptionally boring to watch, because the idea threatens an elitist and self-righteous view on the world that can’t connect with general perceptions. It’s a testament, then, to the patience and care of writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve that Bergman Island remains an intriguing and even charming snapshot of a place that is certainly lost in time, but also enticing to a modern and accessible way of thinking.
The film follows a couple, Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), both of whom are filmmakers who travel together to the Swedish island of Fårö, which was most famously home to Bergman and where he shot some of his most famous films. Staying in one of Bergman’s cottages – said to be the one where Bergman shot his film Scenes from a Marriage – Chris struggles to find inspiration while Tony, who’s much more of a Bergman admirer than his partner, seems to thrive in the creative atmosphere surrounding him, even going on a touristic Bergman “safari” to see some of the places that the filmmaker used in his work. Chris eventually comes up with a narrative for a potential script, but seeks Tony’s advice for an ending; it is here where things switch to the film-within-a-film, as Chris narrates her outline of an American filmmaker, Amy (Mia Wasikowska), travelling to Fårö for a wedding, where she reconnects with an old flame, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie, previously seen in The Worst Person in the World) over a three-day period.
Both storylines are, inevitably for a movie entitled Bergman Island, eerily reminiscent of the filmmaker’s signature dour tone. On the one hand, you have a portrait of a struggling marriage where the two clearly still respect each other, but have just as blatantly lost their spark – put simply, the Scenes from a Marriage connection isn’t exactly coincidental – while on the other, you have another doomed romance where the drama comes from what is not said between the two leads, similar to something like Summer with Monika. Crucially, however, Hansen-Løve does not expect her audience to know the work of Ingmar Bergman inside and out, nor does she expect them to even have an opinion on the filmmaker; his work, and fragments of his private life, are used here as a backdrop to explore the delicate relationship between art and life, and whether one can be successfully removed from the other. One of the big questions asked in this film is if Bergman himself, an impressive filmmaker but said to have been a pretty rotten human being, is eligible to be analysed separately from his work, a question oft asked about certain public figures today when they find themselves in hot water for some of their private actions. It’s something that Hansen-Løve explores in a very unshowy and often meandering fashion, while also diving deeper into the central couple’s complicated connection as they, too, find things both positive and negative to say about the filmmaker whose house they’re staying in (at one point, they try to find one of Bergman’s lighter films to watch together; they settle for Cries and Whispers, which Bergman fans will know is far from any kind of light).
It is a handsome movie, shot with mellow dexterity by cinematographer Denis Lenoir (who previously worked with Hansen-Løve on her previous EDM drama Eden) who captures the stunning beauty of this Swedish island like an enticing travelogue, and performed by a magnetic quartet of actors who bring strong naturalism to their very human parts. Most impressive are both Vicky Krieps and Mia Wasikowska, who respectively nail the growing frustration of stalled creativity, and the unbearable heartbreak of facing one’s past. Hansen-Løve certainly has a way with bringing out performances from her actors that rarely ever feel like they’re even giving a performance; there’s no big emotional shouting match, nor is there a definitive piece of body language that suggests far more than is on the surface, instead going for that type of understated performance which somehow makes a lot of the silent drama stand out far more.
There’s a lot to like about Bergman Island, though if anyone were to come out of this movie feeling unfulfilled and even bored to tears, it wouldn’t be a completely unreasonable opinion to have. There are parts where the movie feels very slow, and often seems as though it’s serving more as a tourist ad for Bergman fanatics around the globe (to be fair, though, it’s a very beautifully shot tourist ad). The final fifteen or so minutes also threaten to unravel by going in perhaps a much too meta route, which honestly raises more questions than it does answers. These are all aspects which could very understandably turn off some of the more casual viewers out there, and could leave them feeling somewhat empty by the time it does wrap up (somewhat unsurprisingly, the film’s audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is currently at 52%, compared to a more fresh critics’ score).
Personally, I thought this was a rather fine movie; gorgeously made, well-acted, and a interesting meditation on artisty and personal difficulties, all told with a pleasingly mellow edge by a talented filmmaker in her own right. Of course, it’s not completely perfect, for the reasons listed above, but there’s a nice feel to this movie that just felt right for the moment.
You don’t have to be an Ingmar Bergman expert to admire it, but Bergman Island just about fills in all those gaps for you anyway.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Bergman Island is a pleasantly crafted movie that contains some pretty cinematography and strong performances under the assured direction of Mia Hansen-Løve, though it has the potential to seem tedious to other audience members.