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1 June 2022

Bergman Island seems intolerably meta – but it’s not just for cinephiles

Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest work is delightful and persuasive, and leaves you feeling better for having seen it.

By David Sexton

So here we have a film about a couple, Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps), who are both film-makers, going for an extended stay on the island of Fårö, off the Swedish coast, where the great doom-laden director Ingmar Bergman lived and worked and a “Bergman Center” commemorates him.

Both Tony and Chris are working on scripts, and midway through Bergman Island, as Chris explains the outline of her new project to Tony on a walk, it becomes the film we are watching – punctuated by brief cutbacks to the pair, as he reacts unenthusiastically.

This second film, “The White Dress”, is the story of another couple on Fårö: Amy (Mia Wasikowska) had an affair as a teenager with Josef (Anders Danielsen Lie) that she never quite got over. Now 28, a film-maker, married with a child, Amy sees Josef again on the island for the wedding of a mutual friend. They rekindle their relationship before realising it is too late for them; they are set on different paths.

Taking the story up to this point, Chris admits she doesn’t know how to end it. “Do you think it’s a movie?” she asks Tony. Tony, who has previously suggested that if she finds writing so difficult she might consider becoming a full-time housewife, unhelpfully tells her: “It’s up to you. I mean, you look at something long enough, it becomes interesting.” Their relationship may be in search of an ending, too.

[See also: Alex Garland’s Men is a thesis on misogyny, masquerading as a movie]

In a final section, as if the connection between these stories was not evident enough, it is underlined. Shooting her film, Chris seems to take on the part of Amy and to engage with Josef (or Lie).

Summarised thus, Bergman Island sounds a hopeless prospect for a night out, intolerably self-reflexive, no entertainment for anyone except cineastes, getting off on every Bergman reference. Novels about novelists writing novels, films about film-makers making films – it’s not hard to understand why there are so many of them. But, mercy, isn’t there a world elsewhere?

That said, Bergman Island is captivating, one of those films that leaves you feeling better for having seen it, as if you have been secretly enlightened about elements of your own life – relationships changing, decisions taken and avoided, irrevocability. Its writer and director, Mia Hansen-Løve, has made a series of terrific works close to events in her own life, including  Goodbye First Love (2011) to which the film within a film here is evidently a kind of coda. Eden (2014) was about her brother’s life in the French house music scene of the 1990s; the magnificent Things to Come (2016) cast Isabelle Huppert as her philosophy-professor mother lucidly coming to terms with late-life divorce.

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Hansen-Løve has never made a film literally about her life “but they are all transpositions”, she says. Bergman Island evidently draws on the end of her long relationship with the director Olivier Assayas – 26 years her senior – which began when she was 20 and lasted for 17 years. It, too, is a transposition, not a transcription. Although Assayas is a Bergman buff, they never went to the island together, for example.

[See also: The Quiet Girl is an artfully muted masterpiece]

So, already a double-layered film, this is actually triple-layered, Amy not only being a version of Chris, but Chris a version of Hansen-Løve herself. Yet it is so fluently made, so light in its touch (contra-Bergman), so enjoyably shot (in widescreen scope, opening up the landscape, again an escape from Bergman’s harsh framings) that its texture is never oppressive, and just as clear and charming as any of the moral tales of Eric Rohmer, Hansen-Løve’s most obvious influence.

Throughout, the film drolly satirises the literalism of Bergman’s devotees – taking the “Bergman Safari” by bus, and keeping his special chair free in his screening room. It’s one of the ways in which it claims its own freedoms. Vicky Krieps, cast after Hansen-Løve saw her in Phantom Thread (she’s not so incidentally 23 years younger than Roth) is excellent, veering between spontaneity and reserve, laughing and crying unexpectedly, as she reaches tentatively for independence. Wasikowska is appealing too: fragile, nervily desirous. In comparison, the men, Roth and Lie, cruise along less communicatively.

[See also: Terence Davies’s Benediction is a perfect portrait of an outsider]

Bergman Island (Hansen-Løve’s first English-language film) could so easily have been insufferably self-regarding. Instead, it’s delightful and persuasive in the way it shows where fiction comes from, how it can illuminate more than the facts can, and even offer emancipation from them. Still, on general principles, looking ahead, if any creatives can leave off creating mainly about being a creative, it’d be a help.

“Bergman Island” is in cinemas now

[See also: Men film review: a thesis on misogyny, masquerading as a movie]

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special