Everybody loves gossip, and there’s more than a bit of it in Bergman Island if you know your backstory. Namely, you have to know that writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve is a well-regarded filmmaker and that her ex, Olivier Assayas, is also a well regarded a filmmaker and even more widely known.
Bergman Island, meanwhile, is about a filmmaking couple who take a working vacation to the island where Ingmar Bergman lived. There the woman struggles to write (as you get the sense she always does) and meets an admirer of her work. The man has words flowing out of him (again, as he always seems to) and there’s crowded showings of his films. See the parallels?
As best as the timeline can be pieced together, the film developed as her and Assayas’ relationship was ending, and given Hansen-Løve’s tendency to pull from her own life for movies, there was some tittering about whether this would contain digs at her well-known ex. Turns out that’s not the main point of Bergman Island, but little things like the man’s ease with being away from their daughter and his slovenly outfits feel like they could be pointed reprimands.
For the most part, though, the film isn’t focused on the faults of any particular person. Hansen-Løve has broader critiques in mind, ones that take on fundamental tenets of the film industry as a whole. Namely, she’s concerned with the kinds of stories we value, what we excuse in our storytellers, and who is able to thrive in such a demanding profession.
Plenty of that connects to Bergman himself, who goes under a microscope in both obvious and subtle ways. His personal life, which overlaps Tim Roth’s Tony, the husband, is brought up early. He had nine children with a number of women, and he wasn’t involved in many of their lives. The alleged Hansen-Løve stand-in, Chris (Vicky Krieps), revolts at this, openly speculating on how such a callous person created great art or, on the flip side, whether he could’ve created so many legendary films if he had been a more attentive father.
Such open thematic discussion is brought up early to plant seeds in your head, where they sprout as the film cultivates wispy observations about the relationship between art and artist. If the seemingly more self-assured (and slightly lacking in self-awareness) Tony is able to churn out work people love while Chris dithers over whether her films have enough to say, and her own audience seems to have conflicting opinions on this, how does that reflect the way we evaluate and think about the form as a whole?
Eventually we get to see the movie Chris is working on, and the story that springs to life illuminates just how silly Chris is being. Her film will be (is? the precise nature of this glimpse is slippery) about the reunion of an on-again, off-again couple on the same island she and her husband are visiting. They only get a handful of days to either rekindle or bury the relationship forever, but neither push to make the definitive decision quickly. We see it as if it’s a finished film, with Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie as the young pair playing it without any heightening to reflect that they are in a film within the film. Instead, Chris’ vision of capturing the quiet, deeply felt, pivotal moments we all experience is what comes through. It’s delicate, sweet, and I would absolutely watch it as a standalone film.
That Chris doubts its value, and more damningly that Tony loses interest in it, is an incisive critique of the kinds of stories the industry values, but it’s one that still keeps its love for and belief in the form intact. For as much as Hansen-Løve is raising an eyebrow at the supercharged films we collectively admire (she often has Chris scoff as how cruel Bergman’s films are) the care she takes in crafting this gem reveals just how much she believes in the kinds of films she makes and how much she trusts the audience to appreciate their gentler qualities.
Being the face of this message falls to Krieps, who must form the core of the film while barely lifting a finger. Her character is never explicitly angry about her writer’s block nor does she lash out in jealousy or envy at the spotlight Tony receives. Mostly she chews on the story in her head and tours the Bergman sights, always with their daughter in the back of her mind. It’s not a role with a natural highlight reel, but it’s a demanding one all the same, requiring Krieps to turn her struggles with everyday worries and slights into its own quiet journey. Her arc, essentially the arc of the film, is a barely perceptible one, but it’s full of hope for everything she loves and goodwill for what she lets slip away.
Release: now available in theaters
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
Writer: Mia Hansen-Løve
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska, and Anders Danielsen Lie