“Do you think it’s a film?” Chris (Vicky Krieps) asks her husband, Tony (Tim Roth), of the story she’s pitched him—or what could become a story, if she figures out where to take the characters. It’s a question that could be posed, too, of Bergman Island. Chris, after all, is unmistakably a proxy for Mia Hansen-Løve, the real filmmaker supplying her words and guiding her actions. Tony, though English in that unmistakably Tim Roth way, is likely some version of her real spouse, fellow French writer-director Olivier Assayas. And what happens, or doesn’t, between them on the fabled Fårö Island, where Hansen-Løve really traveled a few years ago, suggests an experience straining with neither force nor great success to take the shape of a film.
Moviemakers both, Chris and Tony have come, on some combination of vacation and creative retreat, to a place they hope might spark their imaginations: the summer resort island off the coast of Sweden where Ingmar Bergman, that towering legend of European art-house severity, lived and made some of his revered classics. “We’ll be sleeping in the bed where they shot Scenes From A Marriage,” one of them half-quips. But even half-concern is unwarranted: Whatever sparks of conflict exist between these lovers—he doesn’t always listen, she blows off a tour they were supposed to do together— fail to light the fuse of any fireworks. Hansen-Løve, whose wistful work evokes Bergman perhaps only in the occasional reach of its timeline (her Eden has the decadal scope of his Marriage), blessedly never uses the backdrop as an opportunity for homage. No divine spiders, no chess on the beach.
Nor does she treat Fårö with total reverence. You could call Bergman Island quizzically quotidian in the half-humor of its portraiture: the trivia traded by fans on a so-called “Bergman safari;” the funny idea that an artist so monolithically serious has, in death and legacy, become a tourist destination. Mild puckishness aside, some of this does have the eye-glazing effect of vacation slides. When Hansen-Løve cuts to a mid-film within the film—the start of that story Chris pitches, with Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie as former lovers tiptoeing back into something during a wedding on the island—it feels relevant to the larger sense here that walking in a giant’s footsteps and hanging in his backyard just made this filmmaker more inclined to be herself. Nonetheless, it also plays like an acknowledgement that maybe a few uneventful days on Fårö weren’t movie enough. Is it a film? More like the halves of two separate ones crammed together, Hansen-Løve using an incomplete fragment of another Goodbye First Love to round out a slightly banal, indirect portrait of its creative genesis. And maybe vice versa.
Drive My Car, the leisurely new film from Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour, Asako I & II), premiered alongside Bergman Island in competition at this summer’s Cannes. (It won the Best Screenplay prize, and is now taking a victory lap in Toronto.) Two major artists loom over its sprawling narrative. The first is Anton Chekhov. The film’s plot concerns Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an acclaimed star/director of the stage who, for reasons that remain unclear and appear ominous for a time, casts a younger actor (Masaki Okada) with a fraught connection to his past in the starring role of a new production of Uncle Vanya. This means that portions of the three-hour movie are devoted to recitation of the Russian playwright’s dialogue—traded in rehearsal, delivered on stage, absorbed via recording as Yusuke rides in the backseat of his car, a taciturn, production-mandated chauffeur (Tôko Miura) at the wheel. Naturally, these passages of uncut Chekhov can’t help but comment on the lives of those performing them, though Drive My Car thankfully resists drawing many explicit parallels between its own narrative and the play’s.
The other big name that casts a shadow over Drive My Car is the great Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. His 40-page story of the same name provides the film its source material, reinforcing this critic’s conviction that short stories can be ideally adaptable in a way novels aren’t, providing an intriguing psychological and situational foundation without the pages upon pages of plot filmmakers often struggle to streamline into a couple hours of movie. Here, Hamaguchi somehow preserves the essence of the story while stretching it way out into one of his signature melodramatic epics, complete with significant time jump (a device he used in his soapy doppelgänger love triangle Asako I & II, which was originally poised to be a magnum opus of roughly this size) and climactic torrents of emotional revelation. Interestingly, his Drive My Car is at once more and less mysterious than Murakami’s: The film tantalizingly obfuscates motives that the author had his characters come right out and confess, but it also rather detrimentally builds to the kind of loud, weepy catharsis Murakami generally avoids. To that end, it’s not quite as simpatico a pairing of filmmaker to author as Burning, which genuinely, thrillingly compounded the ambiguities of its text.
To say exactly what that aforementioned connection between director and young star amounts to would perhaps be unfair, even though it’s revealed fairly early on. Suffice to say, the movie takes its sweet time establishing one status quo before bringing us into the other, which has the effect of emphasizing how much the bulk of the film’s events are shaped by what amounts to a protracted prologue, significantly punctuated with one of those exhilarating mic drops of a delayed credits roll (a device that reliably turns this critic into a giddy cheerleader, hooting and hollering at the screen as though it were an Avengers movie or something). In general, the roominess (har har) of Drive My Car is its greatest selling point: You settle comfortably into Yusuke’s work and shifting relationships, grateful for the way Hamaguchi nudges his story along at an unhurried pace not so unlike life itself.
The Great Artist Of History spotlighted in Benediction, the latest from British master director Terence Davies, is the film’s subject: Siegfried Sassoon, a former soldier who became famous for capturing the horrors of the trenches through his poetry. Sassoon was a vocal opponent of the war, publicly criticizing the jingoism of the superior officers prolonging it. He was also something of a Casanova of the early 20th-century gay London socialite scene, carrying on affairs with variously esteemed artists and aristocrats of the era. Both aspects of the man’s life seem to fascinate Davies, who relishes the juicy melodrama of Sassoon’s robust social life while never allowing us (or him) to forget the specter of mass death weighing perpetually on his spirit.
This is the second consecutive biopic of a poet from Davies; his last film, the haunting and bewitching A Quiet Passion, explored the sometimes hermetic life of Emily Dickinson. Sassoon lived a lifestyle radically different than Dickinson’s—he was a man about town who took many lovers, hobnobbed with the rich and powerful, and enjoyed the privileges of celebrity. Superficially speaking, Benediction is a more eventful film. Yet the two movies are kindred spirits in the thrust of their dramatization, suggesting different coping mechanisms for a shared preoccupation with the grim finality of death. And both demonstrate the wonders Davies can work with the episodic conventions of the historical biopic—a generally tired form that the writer-director elevates through the elegance of his compositions, the eloquence of his dialogue, and his talent for finding the perfect stars to embody looming luminaries of the art world. Here, he gets a tremendous performance from Jack Lowden as the young Sassoon; the actor, who looks uncannily like Simon Pegg’s younger brother, suggests wellsprings of deep melancholy even when lobbing conversational cherry bombs with the expert timing of an Oscar Wilde creation.
Seriously, though: Who knew, before this film and its predecessor, that Davies possessed such a pitilessly sharp wit, such a gift for the bon mot? His dialogue in Benediction is a full-course meal of droll rejoinders, exquisite insults, and sometimes hilariously withering rapport. The impression is of a filmmaker finding new dimensions of his own remarkable skillset in the personality of the writers whose lives he explores—of a poet of the screen getting in touch with his playful side by channeling a poet of the page’s. To that end, Benediction’s occasional leaps into the future, where the role of a Sassoon wearied by age and heartbreak passes to Peter Capaldi, seem to forge an even more direct kinship between the two artists. To see Capaldi bellowing at his son to turn down the music of a new era is to recognize a resemblance to the incorrigible crank behind the camera. “Why do you hate the modern world?” the son asks. “Because it’s younger than I am,” Sassoon perfectly replies. Yet Davies has scarcely seemed so alive in his expression: a great director locating a passion for language in the fountain of another’s wit.