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The Movies Within Movies of Bergman Island

Mia Hansen-Løve’s beguiling new film about love, cinema, and Ingmar Bergman oscillates gently between fantasy and realism.

Courtesy of IFC Films
Mia Wasikowska as Amy and Anders Danielsen Lie as Josef

At the beginning of Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest film, Bergman Island, a couple cannot decide which Ingmar Bergman film to watch. “I want a nice Bergman,” implores Chris, played by the quietly willful Vicky Krieps. Neither can the couple, two filmmakers working on separate projects, agree on what to make of the legacy of the late Swedish director. Chris asks Tony, played by a brusque Tim Roth, about the six women who raised Bergman’s nine children: Could the man have been the director he was if he were a woman? Tony dismisses the counterfactual; Chris scowls. Opening with discordance, Bergman Island is a portrait of romantic doubt that swells to existential proportions. Chris is deeply enmeshed with her partner, yet she longs to be independent as a person and as an artist. If the film is an homage to Bergman, it is to his prodigious ability to excavate the human as a creature of need, entangled in desires that seem to contradict one another. 

Chris and Tony have traveled to Fårö, the island that was once muse and home to Bergman, for a writing retreat. On the island, Tony, the more established filmmaker of the two, is quickly greeted by attention from media and fans alike. Chris, who is just writing her first screenplay, observes from the sidelines. Even surrounded by the beauty of Fårö, she finds it difficult to work. If writing is so painful for her, Tony suggests with a clinical pragmatism, why not just become a housewife? Although she never articulates it, Chris finds painful Tony’s seeming inability to respect her art as much as his own. Her pain manifests as scorn: She abandons Tony on a day he had planned for the two of them to explore Fårö together, and contempt starts to infuse her interactions with him. One evening, in bed, she turns away and begins to weep. Confused, Tony tries to ask what’s wrong: Is it the screenplay? Does she miss their daughter? Is she homesick? With each successive question, Chris crumples more: If only Tony were able to realize why.

Bergman was fascinated by his “double self”: a side of him that was “planned and very secure,” as he put it in a 1983 interview, and the “unknown” side of him that was “unpleasant … not rational … impulsive and extremely emotional.” This doubleness was a thematic constant for the director, who excelled at creating moral worlds inhabited by characters whose ostensible opposition was belied by perverse similarity. Think, most famously, of Elizabet and Alma in Persona (1966): patient and nurse, ill and supposedly not ill, although over the course of the movie that duality proves to be illusory. In Scenes From a Marriage (1974), the quietly opposed values of the titular married couple almost constitute an unconventional harmony. The doubles in Bergman Island are not quite so charged. Chris’s counterpart, perhaps, is in the screenplay she’s writing, which becomes a movie-within-the-movie. The screenplay’s main character, Amy, brought to life by Mia Wasikowska, is, like Chris, a filmmaker traveling to Fårö, albeit for a friend’s wedding. Josef, played by Anders Danielsen Lie, is the boy she clumsily fell in love with at 15 and has continued loving, from afar, ever since. Amy and Josef greet each other apprehensively, then passionately. Amy’s problem, as she tearfully tells Josef, is that she’s “in love with two men.” It’s not impossible to imagine that the other man is Tony.

Couples themselves, of course, are a kind of double. Hansen-Løve’s oeuvre explores how we live with the choices others have made for us, particularly when it comes to the big questions: love, self-creation, personal freedom. The romance between Amy and Josef is reminiscent of Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love (2011), which follows a girl over the years as she struggles to untether herself from her first love. In Eden (2014), a young man realizes he will never be able to achieve his dreams. And in Things to Come (2016), starring the masterful Isabelle Huppert, a middle-aged woman ponders her personhood after her decades-long marriage is pulled from beneath her. Hansen-Løve’s films might begin with despair, but because they don’t shy from melancholy they are ultimately enlivening—earnest explorations of interiority that unravel a quotidian joy. This is especially true in Bergman Island, which never seems to lose its buoyancy. At one point, Chris asks Tony why Bergman’s films could not have had “more lightness, more tenderness,” and her criticism seems to describe Hansen-Løve’s approach.

Such tenderness is owed in part to Hansen-Løve’s patient hand. Bergman Island resists category, insisting neither on its fantasy nor its realism. Hansen-Løve said she was drawn to Fårö for its “magic”: In the film, mannequins blink, wooden ducks quack, drawings animate themselves. The plot oscillates, seemingly at whim, between Chris’s story and that of her fictional creation, Amy. Throughout, Bergman Island has a kind of infectious insouciance about its own form. Hansen-Løve is little concerned by literalism, either in the movie’s form or in her characters’ dialogue. Like many of the her previous films, this one is rich in conversations that come alive as mini-dialectics about art, romance, meaning. Hansen-Løve, the daughter of two philosophy professors, once said that cinema was her version of philosophy: It was her “search for wisdom, a search for good and for beauty.” If the preoccupations of the characters in Bergman Island sometimes feel inscrutable, it’s because the fundamental problems they wrestle with—selfhood, art, love—are interminably more so.

By its end, Bergman Island melts fully into metanarrative. Still struggling to write, Chris takes a nap in Bergman’s home. When she wakes, she sees Mia and Anders, the actors who play Amy and Josef in Hansen-Løve’s film—which has become, mysteriously, Chris’s film. It’s the last night of production. Mia leaves, and as Chris sits across from Anders, the night begins to blur with nostalgia. She is wistful, perhaps, not for Anders but for what he represents: a past in which she was younger, more naïve, and love was simpler. Bergman Island is Hansen-Løve’s ode to the passage of time, to the way the years complicate what we ask from love and from ourselves. Perhaps Chris wants more than she can have. She longs for the pure love and freedom of her youth, but she needs her daughter and Tony. The person she wants to become, she discovers, must somehow encompass who she is as a mother, a partner, a muse, and an artist. Sometimes it takes a metaphysical excursion to a remote Swedish island to remind us of the richness of wanting, no matter the contradictions.