At the start of Mia Hansen-Love’s lushly photographed, emotionally gnarled, and lightly meta Bergman Island, married filmmakers Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) arrive on the Swedish island of Faro looking to be inspired and get some work done on their next screenplays. They are awed by what they find. Still, Chris is uncertain. “Too nice?” She wonders. “Too beautiful?”
She has little need to be worried. The island’s serene vistas of breeze-ruffled trees and the rippling waters of the Baltic Sea suggest a relaxing hideout from the world. But the ghost of its most famous resident, the four-times-married Ingmar Bergman, looms large. As the housekeeper at Bergman’s estate (which has a private cinema stocked with 35mm prints of his work) half-jokes about showing them 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage, the film that “made millions of people divorce.”
Hansen-Love’s film has the right setup for a story about a marriage slowly cracking up. (The first line heard in the film is on the ferry: “bumpy.”) But while the writer/director is closely attuned to the strains that begin to show in Chris and Tony’s relationship, she makes clear that these are not exactly new issues. In fact, as the story proceeds, it looks like the couple’s time on Faro is not so much going to be about new work but delving into the past.
The two are a study in contrasts. Although Hansen-Love limits our scope so we can see none of their off-island lives, Tony appears to be the more successful of the two. He is popular enough to be invited for a Q&A after a screening of one of his films and have autograph seekers tell him that he is the reason they got into film.
But while Tony seems to be one of those rare writers not afflicted with self-doubt and is just contentedly scribbling away at his desk, Chris mulls and ponders at hers in brow-knotted frustration. His blithe forward momentum appears to blind him to Chris’ blocked creativity and stifle his ability or interest in proffering advice. “No one’s expecting Persona,” he quips as she worries over her story, indicating that successful director or not, a teaching or mentoring gig is likely not in his future.
The first half of Bergman Island is prettily framed and lackadaisically paced, Hansen-Love being fully aware that the island’s austere beauty can carry a lot of weight. The flickers of dissonance we see in Chris and Tony’s marriage—he doesn’t notice her trying to seduce him, she is increasingly irritated by small things—are small-scale at first. That is until Chris abruptly abandons Tony on the “Bergman Safari” bus tour (a real-life thing that feels worthy of its own comedy) to go driving, drinking, and swimming with a student filmmaker who had been mildly flirting with her.
Not long after that point, Hansen-Love makes clear that this is Chris’ story more than Tony’s. As Chris explains the plot of her blocked screenplay to Tony, the film cuts to a recreation of that story. Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) are on-again-off-again lovers now in committed relationships with other people, but they are reunited at a wedding on Faro where their old feelings are certain to boil back up during all the dancing, drinking, and sauna-ing.
It’s a somewhat asymmetrical story, with Amy tense and taut with high-wire passion and regret, while Joseph shines her on, dancing just out of reach. (Lie’s enigmatic style is a deft match for how the character toys with Amy.) Before long, Hansen-Love starts weaving her two storylines together, though in a highly elliptical and metafictional manner that leaves numerous questions and no clear answers.
Serenely beautiful and just mystifying enough to justify it being more than a travelogue about a place that is certain now to get far more tourists than it wants, Bergman Island avoids just barely being another clichéd look at the struggle between being an artist and being in a relationship. Hansen-Love does not seem too interested in what precisely Chris and Tony are working on or the deeper symbolism of their work. Even though Chris, snooping through Tony’s notebook, finds some quasi-pornographic drawings and scribblings suggesting demons and general carnality, that never comes up again.
The entire film exists in the shadow of Bergman but feels no need to copy his investigative dark nights of the soul. But even though nobody would be expecting Persona, even with the suggestions of doubling that crop up later in the film, Hansen-Love might have benefitted from just a touch of the old master’s rigor. That way, Bergman Island might have felt less like it finished just as it was getting started.