Mia Hansen-Løve’s directorial style seems to be less about style or genre and more about mood. Her 2018 travelogue romance film Maya had very little in the way of substantial story; it was powered by vibes alone. Perhaps her most ambitious project yet, Bergman Island admittedly has more plot. But it’s the tone carried by Vicky Krieps and a wonderful Mia Wasikowska which bring it to life – and put Bergman Island among the director’s very best work.
Chris (Krieps) is an up-and-coming writer-director seeking inspiration in an artists’ residency on Fårö, a small island off the coast of Sweden made famous by longtime Fårö local Ingmar Bergman. Alongside partner Tony (Tim Roth), who is also a director, Chris’s jaunts around the beautiful Scandinavian scenery become as much about self-discovery as sightseeing.
But Bergman is never far from proceedings. His influence on cinema is hard to measure and his influence on Sweden rivals that of ABBA. Though you don’t need to be a Bergman scholar or even much of a fan to understand what Bergman Island is going for, a basic familiarity with his films is useful in a movie where the great Swede’s works are the setting as much as a subject.
Yet they aren’t merely celebrated, either. The complexity of Bergman’s impact and his controversial personal life aren’t shunned. His austere and often bleak films are thought pretentious by some (if not Hansen-Løve), while his poor performance as a father stretches the moral limits of the ‘tortured artist’. A party guest tells Chris matter-of-factly: “Fuck Bergman.”
Bergman’s complicated legacy isn’t the only thing causing a schism, though. Chris and Tony’s relationship isn’t ideal, with the younger woman seeking out adventure and spontaneity in a way her easygoing Brit boyfriend seemingly isn’t anymore. This is a tad ironic, because in taking a part in a Mia Hansen-Løve movie Tim Roth is clearly interested in doing new things. The actor first came to Cannes 29 years ago with Reservoir Dogs; to see him star in a sensitive, emotionally engaging film from a young European filmmaker in this decade is exciting and gratifying.
Krieps is also sound in a role which is meta to the point of biopic as far as Hansen-Løve herself goes. But both are outshone by Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie, who play Amy and Joseph, the characters in Chris’s new film. As she talks out her ideas, Joseph and Amy’s story becomes the main – and more interesting – one. A Bergman-esque vocalisation of her own fears and anxieties, Chris’s film follows a young woman who travels to the island for a wedding before being caught up in a romantic reunion with a lost ex-lover. The intensity of Joseph and Amy’s passion throws her secure life up in the air. Where it lands – and how she ends her movie – is the big unknown.
Bergman Island doesn’t indulge in its self-awareness, even if it is a near-constant feature. Roth’s character and the movie he’s working on ground the film in something other than Chris’s own endless worries, crucially. Other friendships old and new, plus all the Ingmar Bergman trivia you could ever dream of, are also essential fixtures in a movie which does well not to disappear up its own nose.
Hansen-Løve has made a good film about the strains of creativity as well as a guide to good meta filmmaking. Anyone interested enough in movies to enjoy her latest won’t be disappointed, even if its dramatic gravity doesn’t quite have the pull of Bergman’s greatest works.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival.