Hansen-Løve: Bergman Island (2021)
Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest film is one of her gentlest and most mercurial yet – and may well be one of her most cryptically autobiographical as well. It revolves around a couple, Chris Sanders and Tony Sanders, played by Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth, who spend a few weeks on Fårö, the island where Ingmar Bergman lived and worked. Tony is a famous director, and has been invited to Fårö to conduct a residency, while Chris is trying to complete a screenplay. Over time, their paths gradually diverge, and continue to do so as Chris imagines her screenplay, which takes us to a film-within-the-film featuring an alter ego named Amy, played by Mia Wasikowska, who also travels to Fårö, but in this case for the wedding of a close friend.
The bulk of the film focuses on Chris and Tony, and starts with an introduction to the iconography and topography of Bergman’s Fårö. We hear from a tour guide that “Bergman discovered his own landscape” when he arrived in Fårö, “one that existed inside of him,” meaning that journeying to the island is like travelling deep into Bergman’s cinematic sensibility. Time and again, Chris and Tony remark on scenes, objects and tableaux that are familiar from Bergman’s films – including in their own living quarters, where they sleep in the bed where Bergman shot Scenes From a Marriage, a harbinger of their own romantic crisis.
During these early scenes, Hansen-Løve presents Fårö as a space far removed from our digital climate – a space where the classical cinematic visions of Bergman still resonate. There’s limited internet connection and no technology in sight, meaning that both Chris and Tony compose their upcoming projects on sheets of paper that are as brilliantly white as the walls of their house. Within this digital blind spot, cinema feels more present, or at least its absence resonates more profoundly – most notably in the local Bergman Theatre, which always keeps Bergman’s favourite seat empty. In one of the early scenes, Chris and Tony emerge from an afternoon screening of Cries and Whispers to a dusky evening that feels completely continuous with the crepuscular gloom of the theatre, and of a piece with Bergman’s own black-and-white landscapes too. In this beautiful transition, Hansen-Fårö evokes an island, and a mindset, that is still very much in keeping with the darkened hush of traditional cinema.
At the same time, Bergman Island feels like Hansen-Løve’s meditation on the end of her relationship with Olivier Assayas – it’s her version of Marriage Story, but filtered through Clouds of Sils Maria, with a great deal of compassion for her former partner. As the film proceeds, Tony, Assayas and Bergman are gradually fused into a single emblem of male auteurism – and Bergman’s masculinity is foregrounded pretty early on. In one of the more discursive scenes in the film, Chris discusses Bergman’s romantic life with a series of curators and fans. They reflect that he could have never produced such a voluminous body of work if he hadn’t been able to rely on his many lovers and mothers to raise his children, and that a female director from the same era wouldn’t have been able to thrive in the same way. Similarly, Tony seems pointedly disinterested in Chris’ work, always responding to her questions and concerns in a drably off-beat manner, as if he has better things to think about.
Yet Hansen-Løve (and Chris) never permit Fårö to become an emblem of restrictive masculine auteurism either. If anything, Bergman Island is a line of flight from this version of Bergman – the Bergman that has sustained the kind of residency and legacy that empowers Tony in the present. Chris first glimpses this line of flight when she arrives in Fårö and realises that “everything is less harsh than in his movies.” Being in the midst of Bergman’s universe allows her to displace his existential dread in favour of the gently hypnotic style that is Hansen-Løve’s directorial signature. In fact, only the barest outlines of Bergman’s universe are recognisable as Chris starts to traverse a landscape that has more in common with the pellucid pastoral of Things to Come, or the early rave sequences of Eden – vistas that brim with a vivid freshness.
In that sense, Bergman Island continues the wandering, exploratory and emergent quality so integral to Hansen-Løve’s cinematic vision. Chris, like so many of her women, relishes the feeling of her body in space, the pleasures of walking and drifting, and the freshness of wind blowing through trees, which is especially potent on a small oceanic island. The landscape of Fårö is particularly conducive to this metonymic drive to wander too – it’s flat, and not very marked in terms of its features, but never quite flat or bleak enough to be featureless either.
This expansive feminine proprioception is all the more emphatic in a landscape that Bergman used to envisage the claustrophobic constriction of women. The only shots we see from Cries and Whispers are close-ups that trap the lead women in torturous configurations that seem to thrill Tony but deject Chris. This is the Bergman that Tony is invested in – when Chris describes the film as a horror piece without catharsis, Tony blithely explains that this lack of catharsis is what makes it so vital. While Chris doesn’t necessarily disagree, she yearns for another way of seeing Bergman, and of reimagining gender roles in cinema more generally.
This leads on to my favourite sequence in the film – and the main line of flight from Bergman’s legacy. It starts with Tony giving his main masterclass on Bergman, only to find that Chris has left the building when he tries to find her in preparation for the Bergman Safari. This road trip is the natural sequel to Tony’s talk, and takes in all the major Bergman sites on the island. Yet even here, you sense a different experience of the island emerging from the canonical story. When the Safari visits the shooting location for Through a Glass Darkly, for example, the tour guide informs them that the house from the film has been demolished, and that it was just an exterior anyway, with all of the interior scenes being filmed in a studio. All that remains of the film is a small pastoral quirk – a jagged area where the original stone wall was filled in again after it was temporarily dismantled to give Bergman better sightlines and perspectives.
This diffusion of the Bergman canon to a more general pastoral potentiality fuels Chris’ alternative trip around the island, which she takes with a young Bergman student while Tony is on the Safari. This student, Hampus, played by Hampus Nordenson, promises to show Chris the hidden treasures of Bergman’s island, although these quickly move away from any specific reference to Bergman himself. Instead, they immerse Chris in the ambient porosity of the island, as the two seek out spaces where the wind is pronounced, and embark upon great swathes of ambient texture that elasticise the landscape in ways unavailable upon the Safari.
During these scenes, as in so many of her other films, Hansen-Løve often withholds the space the characters are looking at or moving towards, building our anticipation for a vista that is always a little less spectacular or majestic than expected. Instead of dramatic topographies, we get fields of ambience, not unlike the scene in Things to Come when Isabelle Huppert’s character wanders out into the tidal flats. Here, we have a number of similarly ambient spaces that never quite congeal into a unified spatial field. To start the trip, Hampus takes Chris to a series of inland sand dunes that once faced the sea, but have since been contained by a windbreak of conifers. Then, they move to a quiet, secluded beach on the north side of the island that’s flooded with jellyfish. Finally, they stop off at a farm that sells sheepskins, and browse through row after row in an open-air market as the wind blows across from the ocean.
These swathes of ambience are a little too dispersed and decentred to build a sharp sense of space – at least of space as a function of the objective cinematic eye, here coded as irreducibly and inextricably masculine. Instead, they are kinaesthethic spaces, zones that only ramify with feminine movement, whether it’s Chris’ compulsion to run and dive into the sand dunes, or to throw jellyfish at Hampus, or to run her hands along the sheepskins as she walks past them. All in all, this journey around Fårö is possibly Hansen-Løve’s purest study in her signature ambience, deflecting any semblance of story into Chris’ screenplay and the film-within-a-film.
I have to confess that Bergman Island lost me when it shifted to this second narrative – partly because it ramifies so thoroughly as a narrative, and so feels like a retreat from the splendid ambience of these opening acts. Hansen-Løve seems torn by the transition as well, taking care to continually remind us that Chris is recounting the screenplay to Tony as they’re both walking around the island. Initally, Amy’s story also seems to partake of the same ambience – we first meet her with her back to the camera, staring out across a vast expanse of water, on the first leg of a ferry trip to Fårö. The next part of her story unfolds across a series of car and ferry trips that conjure up the same restless wandering of Chris as she explains it to Tony.
I could also see that Amy’s story also had a real resonance with Chris’ story. Both revolve around women who arrive on Fårö with a strong sense of being subordinate to patriarchy – Chris, because she is accompanying her husband on his residency; Amy, because she is attending a wedding, and ends up meeting an ex-boyfriend who uses and disposes of her. At one point, Amy’s boyfriend tells her that her desire to have two children with two men at the same time is absurd, even as they’re surrounded by the legacy of a director who did precisely that (and much more) with women. No surprise that this exchange also incriminates Tony, who callously takes a phone call at the very moment that Chris is recounting it, meaning that it stays between herself and Amy, and forms a kind of muted feminist core to the film’s vision.
Both women, too, aren’t seeking to reject the island, or Bergman, so much as develop a new line of flight from it. Chris’ screenplay ends with Amy left alone on the island, sidelined both by the wedding and by her ex-boyfriend, much as Chris feels sidelined by Tony’s residency. At this moment, both the film and the film-within-a-film settle into a kind of tactical incompletion, as if Hansen-Løve wants to run away from Bergman, but also end up at Bergman, who is both the inspiration and destination for all her wanderings. These chart a circuitous and reparative course around his work rather than rejecting it completely, and climax when Tony leaves so Chris can put to pen to paper. At this very moment, Chris finds herself compelled and propelled into her most vigorous trajectory so far – to Bergman’s house, where she seems to glimpse a new Bergman, an incomplete Bergman, a provisional and open-ended Bergman, amidst the prospect of his unread books and unfinished projects.
This, then, is the final note of the film – an inchoate attempt to both escape and return to male auteurism, or at least suspend Bergman’s legacy in a provisional and productive state of incompletion. For both Amy and Chris, Bergman “may be a formidable reference, but he is…refuge” as well. I’m not sure I was convinced by this turn, just as I never found Amy’s character especially compelling – perhaps because Hansen-Løve’s peculiar sense of fecundity seems so attuned to women celebrating middle-age, or arriving at the cusp of middle-age. And I’m not sure the film is entirely convinced by its project either, ending with a series of cryptic convolutions that feel like a melancholy or muted defeat rather than any resounding reclamation of Bergman. That reclamation, to me, was still most pronounced in those spectacular twin trajectories of the Bergman Safari and Chris’ more exploratory wanderings, which on their own terms remain as some of my favourite moments for Hansen-Løve to date.
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