The name “Bergman” comes up approximately 357 times in French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island. Bergman (Ingmar the filmmaker, not Ingrid the performer) functions as a daunting source of inspiration for working or prospective filmmakers. He is a ghostly presence who haunts Fårö Island’s inhabitants with a seemingly unmatchable output that is considered among the world’s best. Bergman is known for exploring Big Ideas in Profound Ways–everything from post-WWII existential angst to the struggle between religion, rationality, and spiritual belief in a fallen world defined by violence, war, and injustice.
Loosely based on–or, more likely, influenced by–Hansen-Løve’s long-term relationship with Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper, Clouds of Sils Maria), an enfant terrible of the French cinema turned elder statesman of said cinema, Bergman Island may be too ruminative or meditative for some viewers and not too ruminative or meditative for others. However, viewers who expect melodrama with their drama may be disappointed by Hansen-Løve’s ambitious, if open-ended, focus on creativity and creative partnerships. So too may viewers who are eager for a deep dive into human psychology on par with Hansen-Løve’s earlier, more emotionally impactful work, like Things to Come, Goodbye First Love, and Eden.
Among other things, Bergman Island centers on the fissures that emerge in a romantic relationship and creative partnership during the course of a week’s stay at the titular island off the coast of Sweden where Bergman lived the second half of his life. It became Bergman’s home after directing Through a Glass Darkly there in 1961. If the nickname “Bergman Island” is any indication, Bergman’s protracted stay on the island continues to provide the local population with much-needed tourism-related income. The central couple in question, Tony (Tim Roth), an established filmmaker of international renown, and Chris (Vicky Krieps), his much younger partner and a filmmaker in her own right, see their visit to Bergman’s island home as a potential source of inspiration. Instead, they inadvertently begin slipping into a subtle variation of Bergman’s classic, Scenes from a Marriage.
While they’re both filmmakers, they don’t collaborate on projects as partners. They choose to vacation together and work on their respective screenplays separately. Tony gets one of Bergman’s island homes and Chris a nearby windmill. Tony seems to have little trouble writing during the day, although Hansen-Løve deliberately leaves the contents of Tony’s screenplay vaguely defined (a drama seemingly influenced by the complexities and contradictions in Tony and Chris’s decade-long relationship). The brief clip she shows of his work suggests a smug, self-involved filmmaker overly impressed with himself and the layered meanings critics derive from his work (deservedly or not). Tony might be the established artist, but Hansen-Løve prefers to focus on Chris as she struggles to develop her ideas into a workable screenplay.
As Tony basks in the ready-made adulation that comes with a long career in filmmaking at an island screening of one of his earlier works, Chris, both slightly resentful of his fame and stifled by her proximity to that same fame, breaks an after-screening date with Tony to explore the island on her own. It’s exactly what — and who (a younger, awkward university student and the source of a casual flirtation) — Chris needs to activate the dormant creative process she describes as “torture” to an uncomprehending, unsupportive Tony. Chris’s creativity functions as a double spur, both to Chris specifically in her creative pursuits and to Bergman Island directly as Chris, acting as storyteller, narrates her half-formed ideas to a casually indifferent Tony on a walk around their rented property.
The segue to and from a film-within-a-film crystalizes in the form of Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), onetime lovers in their late twenties who briefly reunite over a three-day weekend on the island for a wedding of their mutual friends. Through Chris’s narration of Amy and Joseph’s brief re-connection, Hansen-Løve captures the physical and emotional intensity of young, if ill-fated, love that’s seemingly missing from Chris’s relationship with the older, condescending, controlling Tony. The film-within-a-film reflects Chris’s ideas about romantic love, commitment, and, giving Bergman’s repeated mentions, fidelity or lack thereof.
That segue isn’t permanent, however, but a third-act turn seems to be. Hansen-Løve increasingly blurs the line between fiction and reality, adding doubt to the formally stable story involving Chris, Tony, and the preteen daughter they share together. The final image, one of reunion, if not reconciliation, suggests that the fractures in Chris and Tony’s relationship may be more permanent and, ultimately, more impossible to resolve than they seemed at first, perhaps merging multiple levels of in-film reality with Hansen-Løve’s own.
Bergman Islandopens theatrically in North America on Friday, October 15th.