If you are the daughter of two philosophy professors who is cast as an actor in her teenage years by an auteur director later to become your partner, it’s perhaps not surprising that in your twenties you get interested in filmmaking and try writing reviews for Cahiers du cinéma – and that you abandon formal education. Mia Hansen-Løve was in a relationship with Olivier Assayas between 2002 and 2017 and during that time she made several short films and then her first feature in 2007. Bergman Island is her seventh feature and most of her features have had narratives drawing on some form of family or work relationships that Hansen-Løve has experienced. One feature (Eden 2014) was written by her brother drawing on his DJ experiences, another (Things to Come 2017) starred Isabelle Huppert as a philosophy teacher. To continue this process, Hansen-Løve drew on her interest in one of the first acknowledged auteur directors, Ingmar Bergman and her visit to the small island of Fårö in the Baltic just off the larger island of Gotland. Fårö was Bergman’s home in the latter stages of his life and provided the settings for several of his best-known films. Hansen-Løve first visited the island in 2015 and then returned each summer. Bergman Island was filmed over two summers but was interrupted by the pandemic and finally released at Cannes in 2021.
If we think about this background, we can almost write the script for Bergman Island ourselves and we might get quite close to what the director actually produced. I don’t suggest this in order to imply the script is simplistic in any way, but rather it grows out of Hansen-Løve’s experience as a filmmaker. Her second feature (Le père de mes enfants 2009) is about a fictional filmmaker and his family but is draws on the life of the well-known film producer Humbert Balsan who had helped Hansen-Løve early in her career. This would be the first of her films shot mostly in English and her original casting ideas were for two American filmmakers, a couple, with the woman played by Greta Gerwig. Ironically, Gerwig could not finally make the film because it clashed with her own directorial début, Little Women (US 2019). Hansen-Løve turned instead to Vicky Krieps who had just come to the fore with her work on Phantom Thread (US 2017). Tim Roth was cast as the male director in 2019.
It’s interesting to me that a French filmmaker uses an English man and a Luxembourgish woman to play American filmmakers (the Press Pack and Hansen-Love herself in interviews refers to the couple as American). I’m aware Roth is now better known for his roles in American blockbusters but he remains a South London boy for me and I’m sure for many others. He is also an actor who has directed a film, The War Zone (UK 1999) that draws on his own experiences. Vicky Krieps speaks several languages. I’m presuming she speaks French and German as first languages and although she speaks accented English in this film, she also responds to her mother on the ‘phone in German. Actually there is a discourse about language throughout this film. Most educated Swedes and other Scandinavians speak excellent English and in films, characters often use English when speaking to other nationalities, especially those from small language groups. But this involves often using English pronunciations of Swedish names and places. For instance when Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps) arrive at the house they have rented on the island (the house used by Bergman for shooting part of Scenes From a Marriage (Sweden 1973)), the housekeeper pronounces ‘Bergman’ in the Swedish way, i.e. as ‘Barryman’ even though she is using English to explain things about the house. Later, however, when the couple meet members of the Bergman Foundation, they all pronounce ‘Bergman’ in the Anglophone manner. I think this is quite important simply because Bergman is, I think, understood rather differently in Sweden and in the international film world.
Outline (no spoilers)
Tony and Chris arrive on Faro and set up their writing desks in separate locations, Tony in the house and Chris in the windmill a short distance away. Tony has been booked to attend a screening of his latest film where he will participate in a Q&A. Afterwards he joins the ‘Bergman Safari’ tour of the island and locations connected with Bergman’s films. Chris decides to duck out of the tour, but in fact she does visit some of the famous Bergman locations. She also meets a young Bergman student/scholar, Hampus. Tony is a horror director but Chris is working on a romance. After a discussion about their different approaches to writing, Chris begins to tell Tony about an episode she is writing that possibly takes place on an island like Fårö. As she narrates the opening to this narrative we see the characters she is creating, specifically Amy (Mia Wasikowska), a young filmmaker living in New York who is travelling to the island to attend a wedding which will stretch across three days. Amy is aware that one of the other people who is coming to the wedding is Joseph (Anders Daneilsen Lie) who was once her boyfriend and with whom she still feels there is a connection. This new narrative fills most of the latter part of the film but at some point the two narratives appear to bleed into each other, some of the same characters appearing in both narratives. There is no ‘resolution’ of the overall film except that Chris is reunited with her daughter June who Tony has brought to the island from (the US?) after a short trip to meet his producers.
Bergman Island is for me a carefully thought out film that explores a number of linked questions about the nature of writing and filmmaking and the relationship between ‘fiction’ and lived experience. There has always been a tension in film studies concerned with the importance of the biography of the filmmaker and the stories that she or he decides to tell and how they tell them. Hansen-Løve makes clear that the film within the film is about a female filmmaker and at one point presents us with a transition from Amy to Chris in which both women are wearing very similar clothes and shoes. Mia Wasikowska not only shares a name with Mia Hansen-Løve, but also a similarity in facial features and hair colour. Amy is free to make the films she wants to make but Chris to be appears negotiating what she writes and how she writes her films – she looks to Tony for guidance. She is also attempting to write surrounded by the evidence of both the film (and stage and TV) work of Ingmar Bergman and the stories of his personal life. Bergman was a man who partnered five women and fathered nine children without spending much time caring for them as he focused on his filmmaking. Chris is also conscious of being on Fårö, a magical place with landscapes, light and sun, wind and rain which seem to steer a writer to certain kinds of stories. At one point Chris complains that Fårö is possibly too beautiful and too unsettling.
When I first approached the film, knowing only a little about it and having watched the trailer, I expected a narrative containing a mise en abîme – a film within a film with some meanings from the second film acting as a kind of commentary on the first. But Bergman Island is a much more complex text even than that. When Variety announced that Tim Roth was joining the cast, the report suggested that Roth was joining a production which included a ‘supernatural’ element. I wouldn’t use that description but it could be that the second film (which has the possible title of ‘The White Dress’ which Amy has packed but then realises she can’t wear because it would clash with the bride’s outfit) includes some unusual elements. Do we see Chris in another reality in which she is shooting ‘The White Dress’ or is it in the future when she has left Tony? These are all open questions. The Swedish critic, writer and filmmaker Stig Björkman appears in the film as a member of the Bergman Foundation team. Is he playing himself? He appeared as one of the experts giving ‘witness statements’ in Margarethe von Trotta’s documentary Searching for Ingmar Bergen (Germany-France 2018). Mia Hansen-Løve is also interviewed in that film as she was on Fårö preparing her film when von Trotta was shooting her film.
I assume that most audiences today will view Bergman Island in the context of debates about the under-representation of women as film directors. How much does an audience need to know about Bergman? Would the film still work if the island was simply a holiday destination or if it was the home of a fictitious director? There is quite a lot of discussion about Bergman, some of it a little critical, and the Bergman ‘scholar-fans’ on the tour are gently mocked at times. Chris is certainly circumspect about some of Bergman’s work and if you know Bergman’s films and his biography you may relate them to aspects of Tony’s behaviour. I think Tim Roth does a good job and allows some of that discussion to develop. Vicky Krieps is also very good. I’m more of a fan of Bergman’s early work in the 1940s and 1950s rather than most of the films referenced here but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of Bergman Island – and I’d certainly be up for watching The White Dress, which features the Tina Charles song ‘I Love to Love’, a great choice. Bergman Island also works as a promotional film for tourism on Fårö. It’s shot in a CinemaScope ratio by Denis Lenoir who also shot Things to Come and Eden for Mia Hansen-Løve – and she said that she chose ‘Scope to give her some distance from Bergman (who never shot in that ratio). I did actually manage to see her film on the cinema screen which was a big bonus. It’s now available on MUBI or on Amazon using the MUBI app.