Mimicking Ingmar Bergman has been a creative rite of passage for a very long time, but it seems to be experiencing a kind of renaissance lately. In this year alone, Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe have given it a go with their five-chapter Master Of None Presents: Moments In Love, while The Affair co-creator Hagai Levi paired up Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain for his HBO take on Scenes From A Marriage, a direct remake of Bergman’s own 1973 television miniseries. Rounding out the 2021 mini-trend is Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, an imitation of the best kind.
Set on the island of Fårö, where the Swedish director lived, shot a number of his films, and was buried, Bergman Island evokes the rhythms, rituals, and realism of his work without lapsing into beat-for-beat homage. The narrative collapses into memory, explores hypotheticals, and deviates toward imagination. Hansen-Løve’s screenplay explicitly addresses Bergman’s filmography in a way that is thought-provoking for fans but not exclusionary to neophytes. And in its strongest, most evocative scenes, Bergman Island feels like peering in someone else’s window, sensing an echo of your own experiences, and marveling at all the ways a stranger could remind you of yourself.
A relationship is made up of tiny moments of acquiescence and betrayal, and Bergman Island is curious about each. The film spends a week or so in the lives of couple Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps), filmmakers who travel to Fårö for the island’s annual Bergman Week. Tony is working on a new script, and will present one of his films as part of the event. Roth plays the character as an unperturbed man unaware of how his brusqueness flirts with cruelty, and how his self-assuredness (how he lounges at the desk where he smoothly writes pages upon pages; how he balances upright atop a bicycle) suggests someone for whom many things have been easy.
Chris, meanwhile, is struggling. She misses their young daughter. She feels strange staying in the house from Scenes From A Marriage, which is proudly described to her by the home’s caretaker as the “film that made millions of people divorce.” She’s still working on her script’s latest outline, and is crossing out more than she’s keeping. And although Chris loves Bergman’s work, Fårö feels somewhat alien, and like a reminder of patriarchy’s insidious stranglehold on creative spaces. There’s a clue to her state of mind in how she questions Bergman’s famous prolificity, wondering if he could have churned out so many movies if he was also “changing diapers.” And perhaps another clue in Tony’s defensive response: “I should feel bad, right?”
As the days pass, Tony and Chris circle around each other and wander around the island. (Bergman aficionados will enjoy the trivia presented during a Bergman Safari tour and the glimpse of the filmmaker’s grave.) As with the aforementioned Master Of None and Scenes From A Marriage, Bergman Island filters its interest in the legendary filmmaker nearly entirely through a female perspective. There’s a certain autobiographical angle from Hansen-Løve, who has visited the island annually since 2015, wrote this film while staying in one of Bergman’s houses, and was involved in a long-term relationship with a decades-older fellow filmmaker, Olivier Assayas. She has a willing partner and fine onscreen surrogate in Krieps, who uses her loose-limbed physicality and subtle emotional reactions to build a woman sure of her passions but agonized by her art. How would a woman address monogamy and infidelity? Or respond to gaps in companionship? How would she navigate her own loneliness? Are there truly differences between how men and women live their lives as lovers, parents, and creators?
Chris and Tony might love each other, but they also might not be in love anymore. Hansen-Løve tips the scales in one way by incrementally revealing her characters’ dissatisfaction in their personal and professional lives, and then adds counterbalance with moments of tenderness. There are passive-aggressive text messages, but later a shared meal. A taboo glimpse into a private notebook, and then a confession about a flirtation with another person. Krieps and Roth slide easily between venomous resentment and comfortable affection. They then make way for a surreal shift into a story-within-a-story about another couple battling their own contrasting expectations.
An excerpt from Chris’ screenplay narrated by Krieps, this detour follows former lovers Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) during a wedding on Fårö. Actors playing dual roles, reused locations around the island, and pans and edits that blur narrative boundaries help create an off-kilter sense of familiarity. Wasikowska and Lie are compelling together as a couple who keep finding their way back into one another’s orbit, and their sensual dynamic adds some welcome sexiness.
But Bergman Island’s second half suffers a bit from a sense of calculation avoided in its more-naturalistic first. Hansen-Løve’s deliberate slipperiness regarding what Chris has recreated from her own life is sometimes too on the nose, like when Tony keeps walking away from Chris to chat on the phone with unnamed others, and suddenly Joseph is ghosting Amy after promising to call her. Similarly, a karaoke performance of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All” is not as spontaneous as the film wants it to appear. But the choice to make Bergman Island a frame story is provocative in how it positions fictional storytelling as subconscious truth telling. Coupled with the film’s unsettled, melancholy tone and Krieps’ delicate performance, it’s about as fitting a tribute to Bergman as any fan could desire.