The beautiful island of Fårö was home to legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. He filmed Persona (1966) there, Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and more. He also died there. For so many, the island will be forever synonymous with him. This cinematic legacy hangs over every aspect of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, a delicate and well observed drama set on Fårö. It is a film about films, a film about Bergman, but also a film about people living in the shadow of other things.
In this film we primarily follow two filmmakers who have visited Fårö as a kind of pilgrimage, and to glean out inspiration. Chris (Vicky Krieps) is working on a screenplay set on the island, an observational, human drama of the kind we are watching. One where characters deal with pasts that will not let them go; the secluded setting of the island pushes people together who may be better off apart, it naturally exudes drama. This functions as a comment on Bergman, his inspiration clings to this area, imbuing it with conflict but also with a lingering sadness, a pervasive cynicism and melancholy. Meanwhile, Chris’ partner, Tony (Tim Roth) is writing a different script. He is the most vocal Bergman fan of the pair and claims to be having the most success. Yet, his work remains a mystery to us, he is closed off and ambiguous, speaking in vague philosophical terms and never really interacting with the world around him.
Tony exists at a remove, an observational distance, perhaps, but also seems slightly uncanny. There is an underlying awkwardness to the relationship between the pair, one that feels very purposeful and one that relies on the unspoken and the unrevealed (a sense of ambiguous history forever locked off from the viewer). At one point, we see part of one of Tony’s films. It is not introduced and the transition is jarring, an abrupt shift into something very different and something overwrought. Placing it in this film highlights its artifice, and the artifice of the panel conversation that follows the screening. Here, Tony speaks in vague platitudes on why his films focus on women (a reveal after we, the viewer (through the eyes of Chris) have seen inside his notebook and how women are depicted in it, a moment that cleverly contextualises this scene but does so ambiguously). Tony is on stage with a man and a woman; the two men speak of women in cinema (the woman remains silent); Vicky, stood at the back of the auditorium, walks out. We follow her. It is a small moment, but it is so perceptive. A brilliant touch about the gendered dynamics in film, and in society. A lovely link to Bergman’s work as he too focused on these dynamics.
This is but one example of influence; in general, Bergman’s work hangs over the film. To quote David Foster Wallace, every love story is a ghost story. This is very much true of Bergman Island, both an atypical love story and an atypical ghost story. The ghost here is Bergman, it is mentioned in the film that Ingmar Bergman thought that Ingrid Bergman haunted him. This is used here as a way of dealing with inspiration as a ghost, how this island will only ever be Bergman’s island, yet it will also be so much more, and contradictorily so, at the same time. This intersection of past and present is so core to the film as we always exist in a delicate present that is so overtly defined by a past we never really get shown. A lot of this is down to Mia Hansen-Løve’s great script, in which everything feels lived in and defined; in which characters so clearly function as extensions and as metaphor but also as full humans in their own right. Later, we dive into a film inside a film, before getting playfully meta. These characters, including a wonderful turn by Mia Wasikowska, are so enthralling, their situations so enveloping. They stem from Chris’ script, the one she is working on and needs Bergman’s island’s inspiration for. The other reveal through here is where inspiration really lives on; Tony speaks so publicly about Bergman, he appears as the expert, yet it is in Chris’ work where we most see his continuation. An understanding of people and their prosaically tragic circumstances.
Underpinning all of this is the purpose of film. This is no love letter to Bergman, it is an appreciation but also a reflection on a legacy. It questions the relationship between art and artist and gives a platform to dissenting voices. In the central relationship, it is Chris who stands out. It is Chris, played so beautifully by Vicky Krieps, who provides us intrigue and who feels human. Yet it is Tony’s shadow that hangs over them both, especially as their dynamic starts to mirror the patriarchal dynamics revealed and exposed in so much of Bergman’s work. Chris is overshadowed; Bergman overshadows the island; we see stories of how pasts and things outside of our control overshadow us. It is a delicate intersection of ideas and one with no obvious conclusion, pleasingly so.
This film works because it is a compelling drama in its own right; yet, there is also enough that is academic or symbolic to get the mind going. But it never overcommits to this. The focus stays on people. Perhaps, the multifaceted plot here, where we a pulled in different directions, is a mirror for Bergman’s range. But, it also shows a life outside of Bergman, a world in which new voices are emerging even when it is difficult. So much in Bergman Island goes unexplained or remains ethereally uncertain. It is a story of ghosts, most certainly, but these ghosts are ambiguous metaphors. Early on, Chris comments, after having watched Cries and Whispers (1972), that ‘movies can be terribly sad, tough, violent; but, in the end they do you good’. She does not include Bergman in this description, she says his films don’t give you catharsis. This observation starts to mirror the film we are watching, as it crosses a range of emotions and exhibits them to us. A central plot point about not knowing how to end also starts to materialise in the film itself. This idea of closure, of satisfaction, starts to take on new meaning (or to obscure).
Ultimately, Hansen-Løve finds a new way of achieving the Bergmanian, with a film that leaves you with questions and uncertainty, but also one with undeniable joy. Always, the sheer beauty of the island shines through, its own reflection of life’s joys. So, Bergman lives on; he lives on in the films of today. But this is also so very not Bergman. It is so very Mia Hansen-Løve, and the film within the film is so very Chris. Originality can coincide with inspiration; film can challenge us and satisfy us at the same time; emotional journeys are not always clear. Bergman Island does not offer satisfying answers or messages, no candid truths to take home, but this is the core satisfaction: a true capturing of not only humanity but of how humanity is viewed through the lens of film.