This review of Bergman Island is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to recap lists, follow along for all things TIFF 2021.
Bergman Island begins, quite fittingly, with Chris (Vicky Krieps), a director in search of inspiration, arriving on the island where Ingmar Bergman lived and worked. As she settles into her home for the summer, her husband Tony (Tim Roth) offers some advice: “No one’s expecting Persona.” The Swedish master’s crown jewel would be a lofty and ambitious goal for any filmmaker, but especially in the context of this being a Mia Hansen-Løve film, the remark has an astutely self-reflexive quality. Indeed, Persona, or anything like it, is not what one might expect from the French filmmaker. But in this homage to its director, Hansen-Løve has crafted a startling, unique, and clever triumph.
Landing on the island of Fårö, Chris and Tony are very clearly splitting their time between business and pleasure. The picturesque location is captured in all its vibrant glory by cinematographer Denis Lenoir, with cerulean waves and lush green fields setting the scene as a pastoral respite from the rest of the world. But there’s also work to be done here. Tony is also a filmmaker, and his latest horror film is part of a screening series there. As it turns out, the island has become a tourist destination for cinephiles, and the couple are far from the only people there trying to soak up whatever it is in the water that propelled Bergman’s unparalleled career.
But even that career is something Chris wrestles with. One night she asks their dinner party of esteemed Bergman-devotees if he would have had the time and ability to make all the films he did if it hadn’t come at the expense of a relationship with his children. But this is less of a damning indictment of the man and more of an open question regarding what it takes to boundlessly devote yourself to the craft, and who has this option in the first place.
As for Chris and Tony, while the couple isn’t exactly living their own version of Scenes From A Marriage, there is some tension between the two. Nothing is explicitly wrong, but there’s a missing spark and a dislocation. After navigating around writer’s block and her frustration with Tony’s creative process and his apparent productivity, Chris begins to find her inspiration and develop her next idea.
Her script follows a young woman who ventures to Fårö for a friend’s wedding and rekindles a once-passionate but ultimately doomed relationship with her first love. The scenario is depicted in the film and contributes to a fair chunk of the runtime. Mia Wasikowska plays the young woman, Amy, and Anders Danielsen Lie portrays her former flame, Joseph.
Hansen-Løve fans will surely note similarities between Amy’s story and 2011’s Goodbye First Love. The coming of age story follows a woman from adolescence to adulthood as she navigates love and heartbreak with a boyfriend who re-enters her life. Oh, and the kicker to all of these overlapping threads that connect Hansen-Løve’s former film, Bergman Island, and the film within Bergman Island? Amy is also a filmmaker who based a character on Joseph.
Parsing through all of this on paper makes it seem convoluted. But with the filmmaker’s deft, light touch and her effortlessly realistic characters, the layers of the story are enrapturing and conveyed seamlessly. This is not to say that the film lacks intellectual complexity. Bergman Island is an insightful take on creativity as well as a brilliant and rich character study buoyed by remarkable performances all around. Krieps is as fantastic as anyone who has seen Phantom Thread would expect her to be, Roth conveys a simultaneous likability and aloofness, and in her supporting role, Wasikowska is an enchanting, delightful, and surprising standout.
It often seems speculative at best and lazy at worst to describe a movie as the director’s “most personal film.” But with Hansen-Løve, all of her films, to some degree, feel remarkably personal and yet universal. And after a decade and a half of honing her craft and developing her directorial style, it’s fitting that she has released her most self-reflexive work.
But her reflexive impulses seem to be less about validating her own authorial status or reminding us of her signatures and more about reflecting on the nature of projection and resonance among viewers and creators. Many of Hansen-Løve’s films have revolved around coming-of-age stories. And whether those who are coming of age are fifteen, in the case of Goodbye First Love, or middle-aged, in the case of Things to Come, her films faithfully capture the ache of stasis and the promise of new opportunity.
As a result, her work has a remarkable ability to reflect our experiences. And maybe I’m getting too personal — then again, what is loving a film if not a personal matter? — but her films have consistently conveyed human experiences in ways that have made me feel understood. And considering Hansen-Løve’s work is frequently compared to one of the masters of soul-stirringly human films, Éric Rohmer, I’m not the only one.
With its meta-narratives about various women processing their experiences by creating fictional stories and the questions posed around the overlap between what we know of a director’s personal endeavors and how it informs a reading of their films, Bergman Island seems to suggest that not only is it tempting to project our own experiences onto a film, perhaps it’s inevitable.
There lies the aspect that will resonate deeply with viewers. Bergman Island captures a feeling of curiosity and the reward of discovering a film that reflects the inarticulable sensations of every day. Even when the film reminds us of its fictional status, the beautifully realized characters are as wondrously human as can be, and being drawn into the meta-narrative is incredibly easy.
As with many of Bergman’s films, gathering conclusions from Bergman Island on a narrative or thematic level is not straightforward. The takeaways from any two viewers could be vastly different. But where the film truly succeeds is in offering a complexly thoughtful film without sacrificing a playful tone. Regardless of interpretation, Bergman Island is a truly brilliant film made by an ingenious and insightful filmmaker at the top of her game. It’s also true that no one should expect Persona from the film. Hansen-Løve is too good to waste her time imitating, she has plenty to say on her own.