After the misfire of Maya, a downbeat drama of cultural tourism still awaiting US distribution, Mia Hansen-Løve returns victorious with a film that matches her observational and emotionally intelligent approach with her most ambitious narrative threading yet. Miraculous in mysterious ways, Bergman Island is a return to peak form for the auteur, one that begins with deceptive modesty before steadily exhaling its ideas. Heady but without the emotional remove that such descriptors would imply, Hansen-Løve manages to make a deep and tender film about romance, art, and the subjectivity inherent to experiencing them. It’s simply a wonder to behold.
At the film’s center is Vicky Krieps as Chris, a filmmaker working on a new script and attempting inspiration by hiding out on the island of Fårö, the final home of Ingmar Bergman. Joining her is her romantic partner Tony (Tim Roth), also a filmmaker presenting one of his films on the island while working on writing his next. The intended screenwriting oasis gives way to discord both emotional and creative, where the divide in interpreting Bergman, his place in the canon, and the two’s differing storytelling interests unearths trouble in the relationship. All this is source for inspiration for Chris’ next work: the story of Amy (Mia Wasikowska) arriving to Fårö to celebrate a wedding that is also to be attended by a love that is not meant to be, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie).
Bergman Island spends its fast-paced running time plunging us through its storytelling layers only to emerge on the other side with a sense of liberating resolution and fascinatingly (but unpretentiously) deployed dramaturgy. Part of the film’s magic is its ability to remain elusive in what it is doing during its early passages, and still without unfolding like a mystery to be solved. As Hansen-Løve absorbs you in her observations on the creative process (not to mention the relaxed, sumptuous setting and film lore), she is working another unseen alchemy that reveals itself only once she has given all of its thematic pieces.
And those pieces go beyond what is shown onscreen. Chris is easily viewed as an avatar for the director, with Roth’s Tony a stand-in for her former long-time lover and filmmaker Olivier Assayas. But this metatextual element is another subjective (even passively trolling) piece of Hansen-Løve’s puzzle. Here she seems to be inviting the idea that what we assume, in love and in artistic interpretation, could as easily be correct as off-base; more likely, it’s an assemblage of both. What we perceive as personal could just as easily be entire fiction or reductive perception, revealing as much about ourselves receiving a story as the person who tells it. Bergman Island is interested in perceptions, their imperfections and limitations, and where they collide with the mess of our creativity and emotions.
Similarly, one person’s vantage or the presumed mass point of view isn’t universal. Amy’s story is not the one we might expect to be inspired from Chris’ circumstance or Bergman as an influence (this certainly isn’t the standard Persona riff, but the mirrored women narrative is there), certainly not opposite the canon’s ideas about the landmark auteur provided by the rote tour Tony partakes in. The notion of “light” Bergman yields a screening of Cries and Whispers, much to the resulting repulsion of Chris. The most literal representation in the divides of perception are the two cottages Hansen-Løve places the couple in two write: two houses of thought apart from one another, but able to glance at Hansen-Løve fills the movie with reverberations that challenge the idea that we can all see or experience something the same way, especially if dictated by hive mind or the supposed rules of love.
Its complex, personal narrative strands are nevertheless imbued with a clarity of emotion. This dichotomy makes the film far from remote despite its potential to be an inside-baseball, niche object; the prevailing feeling is an all too relatable sense of the ground moving below your feet the moment you realize something irrevocable is changing. It’s the kind of film that takes over your emotions without you fully knowing why, leaving a mysterious hold on your head and heart at once.
All of Hansen-Løve’s ingredients amount to a beguiling film that’s hard to pin down as one thing but summons a precise and bittersweet feeling. Krieps is divine and expressive down to deeply revealing minutiae, Wasikowska has probably never been better. But the film is foremost an impressive feat of writing and directing, one that cements Hansen-Løve as one of our great living humanist auteurs, but also one perched to unveil more thrilling narrative leaps up her sleeve.