Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Mia Hansen-Love
Writer: Mia Hansen-Love
Starring: Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska, Anders Danielsen Lie
By Calum Cooper
Mia Hansen-Love’s “Bergman Island” (2021) is a soulful ode to the balance and conflicts between art and life. The creative process is one full of struggle and elation, two juxtaposing things that can often occur simultaneously. Whether writing a story or a piece of film criticism, it is a process that can be euphoric one moment and debilitating the next. Hansen-Love captures this with visual style and thematic prowess.
Vicky Krieps of “Phantom Thread” (2017) plays Chris, a filmmaker who travels to the island of Faro with her husband Tony (Tim Roth), also a filmmaker. Faro is significant as it was the home place of famous filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, a man who Tony idolises for his craft, but who Chris detests, despite liking his films, for his treatment of women and his prioritising of art over his own family. As the island proves to be an ideal place for Tony to get his creative juices flowing, Chris finds it difficult to write anything more than rough outlines for her stories. As the days roll on, Chris attempts to juggle art and life with mixed results.
Bergman and his films are recurring motifs throughout the film, hence the title. Although the man is undeniably a talented filmmaker with many incredible works – “The Seventh Seal” (1957), “Wild Strawberries” (1957) and “Persona” (1966) just to name a few – those films came at the expense of his domestic life, and his actions in the pursuit of his art are hard to defend even from his most devout fans. Faro, where he is buried, serves as the ideal backdrop for Chris’s arc, as she rejects the notion that you can’t be both a loving family member and a successful filmmaker. It’s an appealing philosophy, but not without hardship as we see. Although she has many ideas, and even an outline for a potential film, nothing quite seems right. Is it some kind of spiritual pressure from being on Bergman’s island? Is it a response to her guilt for leaving her child behind to come to this place of solitude for work? Is it simply imposter syndrome? The film implies it to be the second, but one could read it as being a combination of all of them.
Interestingly, at roughly the halfway point, “Bergman Island” becomes a story within a story, as Chris finally shares an idea with Tony. The story sees a girl named Amy (Mia Wasikowska) coming to Faro for a wedding, where she seemingly reconciles with an ex-lover (Anders Danielsen Lie), something which leaves her in a psychological crossroads. It may seem jarring at first, but it is a beautiful, harrowing depiction on the link between art and life. As writers, we are often taught to write what we know, that way each story we create is something of a reflection to our own inner worlds. “Bergman Island” proves this is as true in fiction as it is in reality. One can comfortably understand Chris’s mental turmoil from her imagined story, and the way it parallels the real world (at least in the film’s case) woes and tensions of Tony and Chris’s relationship is an especially clever touch.
Denis Lenoir’s cinematography and Hansen-Love’s direction maintain a compelling level of engagement with the film’s story and themes. They are highly contemplative meditations to ponder over, and the accompaniment of Faro’s lush landscapes and brimming colour palette, with lighting that changes depending on whether we are in reality or fiction, for lack of better descriptions, is a mesmerising choice. The background information we are given on Bergman and the island’s connection to him through touristic tours that Tony attends also makes the film an interesting example of film tourism for those who may be keen on that concept.
Yet it is the performances, particularly that of Krieps’ and Wasikowska, that make the film a magnetic experience. Funnily enough, Greta Gerwig was initially attached to star in Krieps’ role. Although it would’ve been interesting to see what Gerwig would’ve done with this role, especially as her initial casting was around the time her own filmmaking career was kicking off with “Lady Bird” (2017) and “Little Women” (2019), Krieps knocks it out of the park with a gorgeously subdued performance that takes us through the motions of the creative process and its relationship to the wants of social and domestic life in life. It’s a spellbinding portrayal. Meanwhile, Wasikowska, as a figment of Chris’s imagination, turns in a dazzling performance of external exuberance and internal fragility with richly thematic power.
“Bergman Island” is a mix of reality and fantasy that explores how the two can influence and oppose each other, even simultaneously. A blank page can be an inviting prospect with its limitless potential. Yet it can also be a battleground of uncertainty, pressure, and inner struggle. Hansen-Love showcases this with acute coolness and deft writing and directorial skill. Few films have captured the highs and lows of being a working creative so dexterously.