LUMI Reviews: Bergman Island

07 June 2022

LUMI young programmer Fionntán Macdonald reviews Bergman Island

LUMI Reviews Bergman Island

One of the best experiences a cinema-goer can have is the blissful revelation of discovering a filmmaker with a completely original approach to this familiar medium. Mia Hanson-Love is one such filmmaker and her recent feature Bergman Island (2021) is a puzzling and peculiar piece of meta-cinema constructed as an acutely personal yet deeply enigmatic thesis on love, cinema and the legendary Ingmar Bergman.

Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps play a pair of married filmmakers who retreat to Sweden to spend time in Ingmar Bergman’s historic residence. Tony (Roth) is the more established of the two while Chris (Krieps) deeply desires the catharsis of creation yet is handicapped by a potent case of writer’s block. Chris ironically finds the serenity and beauty of the setting oppressive and can’t seem to quieten her increasing doubts about her own relationship, finding a new inspiration when she begins to channel her internal misgivings into writing, as a way to communicate with her increasingly inattentive spouse.

It is at this point that Bergman Island transfigures from introspective drama to daringly subversive meta-narrative that will leave a far greater impression than initially evident. The worlds of Bergman Island and Chris’ own script begin to crossover in a strange confluence of realities that sets this film apart from other languorously paced European films (the kind with tremendous critical merit but a deliberately alienating plot; a little like Bergman’s own filmography).

The film within the film is a fascinating edition. Mia Wasikowska’s character Amy is an analogue for a younger Chris, herself something of an analogue for Hansen-Love. It is significant that this film entered production in the same year that Hansen-Love’s longterm relationship with fellow filmmaker Olivier Assayas ended. It is as if the filmmaker is exploring layers of her own personality, or previous versions of herself.

This film explores how artists express themselves and how they work implicit messages into their art, hoping this act will make their feelings explicit to the object of their emotions, something Hansen-Love appears to have done herself. “It’s about how invisible things circulate in a relationship,” says Tony of his upcoming project. The film feels as if it has been built from the lived experience of a long term relationship. Conflict and passion are not explosive but subdued and largely implied.

One of Bergman’s core themes as a filmmaker was duality, the two selves that can exist within a person. What Hansen-Love has done is bring to life two imagined versions of herself and allowed them to merge before the camera. It is a testament to the actresses appearing that while watching one may even become lost in their individuality and forget that they are both facsimiles of the same women; the pragmatic entity and the romantic entity.

There’s a duel identity to the central couple also: both filmmakers, both parents, both creating something that is clearly about their own relationship but which they will not admit is. A man fascinated by women, and a women attempting to reconcile her relationship with men.

Within this meta cinematic relationship chronicle there also exists a pensive and penetrating portrait of Ingmar Bergman and his own duality, as a man but also as the object of adulation and critique. Both Chris and Tony love Bergman’s work and both are imbued with elements of the enigmatic artist, yet each draws different conclusions about their idol.

Tony is Bergman’s humanity, the flawed and sometimes distant creator unable to always manage his creative compulsions with his very real responsibilities as a father and spouse. He is fascinated by women, yet struggles to communicate with the most important woman in his life and the contents of his red notebook (an idiosyncrasy of Bergman’s also) implies that his fascination may have darker implications. Chris is the existentialist in Bergman, consumed with desire for a clarity of feeling and place that remains beyond her reach.

Filmmakers, naturally, have a quasi-obsessive relationship with their own medium. Certain auteurs are able to channel this relationship into their own work and hold the artistic experience under a microscope. The ending moments are suitably impenetrable, leaving a lot for the audience to interpret and a few narrative threads without explicit conclusion. This is an ambiguous film, but an illuminating one for those who like to leave the theatre with a lot to think about and don’t mind meandering through a cinematic experience with some captivating characters and a singular mind at the helm.

- written by Fionntán Macdonald