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Review: ‘Bergman Island’ chases ghosts

(IFC Films)

“You can sit anywhere you want, but not in that seat on the first row. It has to stay empty because it’s Bergman’s.”

These are the words of the projectionist at Fårö Island’s private theatre to Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), screenwriters and romantic partners who have traveled to this hallowed cinephile ground – the home base of the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman – as they brainstorm their next features. In Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Bergman Island,” Fårö, once the shooting location for several of Bergman’s most famous films, has become a critical location in the preservation of Bergman’s legacy by a team of experts and curators, maintaining his home, his sets, and the continued life of his films for any devotees who choose to make the journey. But as Chris and Tony sit down to watch a 35mm print of “Cries and Whispers” (“You wanted a nice Bergman,” Tony quips, referencing the film’s famously depressing nature), one senses that they’ve entered an especially privileged site within this space. Bergman’s seat, distinguished only by a lambskin pillow, eventually makes Chris nervous enough that she switches seats to move farther away; the intensity of his ghostly presence becomes a source of anxiety.

For a filmmaker who so often dealt with questions of death, spirituality, and faith, it’s no surprise that conversations about Fårö and the director in “Bergman Island” operate in a similar vein. Most pointedly, one of the many Bergman experts Chris and Tony encounter in the film suggests that the director began to feel more inclined to believe in the afterlife after the passing of Ingrid Bergman (no relation to the “Autumn Sonata” star), his fifth and final wife, noting that “Bergman believed in ghosts more than anything.” Fårö is gorgeous and placid, an oasis for vacationers and Bergman lovers seeking inspiration, but there is a manner in which this space is still haunted by him, a mausoleum tasked with being the central place to maintain his complex legacy. Chris immediately notes the contrast in the scenery upon arrival: “Don’t you think it’s too nice? Too beautiful? All this calm and perfection, I find it oppressive.” With this beauty so striking that it drowns out creativity, she emphasizes an inferiority complex: how can anyone feel secure and confident writing their own work with the ghost of one of the greats looming over you? In a later scene, Chris tries and fails to write while a clock, one of the signature hallmarks of Bergman’s style, loudly ticks in the background, the ghostly presence becoming a literal hindrance.

Vicky Krieps as Chris and Tim Roth as Tony in “Bergman Island.” (IFC Films)

The film’s stance on Bergman’s legacy is slightly difficult to parse. Though he’s a figure who has been continually canonized, with films like “Fanny and Alexander,” “The Seventh Seal,” and “Persona” regularly appearing on lists of the greatest films of all time, Bergman is no stranger to passionate debate amongst cinephiles – just ask Jonathan Rosenbaum. In the film’s film-within-a-film, one character, who mentions that he spent his summers on the island as a child, laments the influence of the director in the public image of Fårö – “Fuck Bergman!” he exclaims, much to the confusion of his conversation partner. Earlier in the film, Chris encounters a group of native islanders who seem befuddled when she mentions Bergman and asks for directions to the house from “Through a Glass Darkly” (which, as Tony later informs her, doesn’t actually exist). In some of the film’s most subtly funny moments, Hansen-Løve depicts Fårö as an attraction with guided tours (the Bergman Safari!) and buses to transport the faithful, a Swedish Graceland that attracts the snobbiest of Bergman fans, who win trivia contests and can tell you whether it was released as “Shame” or “The Shame” in America.

These early scenes have the feeling of a travelogue in a certain fashion. Chris and Tony write – or at least attempt to write – but they also spend much of their time exploring and getting the lay of the land. Tony, a famous film director in addition to his work as a writer, is presenting his latest horror film on the island; one senses that Chris wants to avoid these events at all costs. Tony gets stuck on the insufferable Bergman Safari all by his lonesome, while Chris gets the chance to explore the little-seen areas of Fårö with Hampus (Hampus Nordenson), a Swedish student with an intimate knowledge of the island and Bergman’s career. 

Subtle conflicts begin to arise between the couple. As she analyzes whether it’s possible for a woman to be elevated to the stature of an artist like Bergman, Tony dismisses Chris’s frustrations that Bergman was allowed to be a lousy father and human being. She glances through his notebook and finds a series of explicit sexual drawings; he grows exasperated when she ditches the Safari. Chris spends most of her time alone, but Tony’s aloof and slightly distant affect guides every scene they share together. While these clashes never boil over – there are no knock-down, drag-out verbal fights like in Bergman’s most famous films – one gets a sense, through these minor acts of disrespect, that Hansen-Løve is exploring the difficulty of being a woman and an artist in these male-dominated spaces, of being defined by your partner and the looming shadow of an artist whose greatness as a filmmaker was enabled in part by his own “cruelty” as a human being, to use a character’s word from the film. Should one remember the fact that Hansen-Løve was in a long-term relationship with the prominent French director Olivier Assayas until 2017, it may be hard to resist the tendency to read this film as slightly autobiographical. 

Mia Wasikowska as Amy and Anders Danielsen Lie as Joseph in “Bergman Island.” (IFC Films)

Tony’s distance as a creative and personal partner grows more pronounced during the film’s second half, in which he’s barely a character beyond his occasional interruptions to the story Chris is telling. In this half, Hansen-Løve shifts to a film-within-a-film, in which Chris recounts the love affair of Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) as they reunite at a friend’s wedding on Fårö. The shift into cinematic reflexivity is striking but far from unexpected: after all, so much of “Bergman Island” features characters talking about cinema, both fake and real, canonical and imagined. In this regard, Hansen-Løve seems to be in dialogue with the films of Korean director Hong Sang-soo, whose work, often read as autobiographical as well, frequently features male directors and creatives within this kind of reflexive framework. There are even traces of Assayas’ “Irma Vep” in Hansen-Løve’s portrayal of the desire to create something new in the shadow of cinema’s illustrious past.  

Hansen-Løve, working in tandem with her regular cinematographer Denis Lenoir, is fabulous at bringing texture – a feeling of vibrancy – to each and every element within the frame. Though it would be difficult to make the natural landscapes of Fårö seem anything less than beautiful, Hansen-Løve imbues the film with a real sense of place; the ghostly sensation is in large part due to the way that she has shot, framed, and paced this very patient film. Hansen-Løve also succeeds in crafting these rare transcendent moments that jolt us into a different register: it’s impossible not to be swept up in Amy’s dance to “The Winner Takes It All,” a feat of dynamic camera work and lighting that perfectly conveys the tone of a moment that we theoretically could feel distant from. Each music choice, whether it’s a well-timed needle drop or the gentle musical score, strikes the right pitch throughout. 

Despite the skill with which the film is directed, I still found myself at a curious remove. We see the inner workings of Chris and Tony’s relationship throughout each stage of the film, but Hansen-Løve relies on very brief moments to convey any sense of a broader history between the two: a curt “No” from Chris when asked if she wants to accompany Tony to a panel, her curious reaction to a returned gaze from the female character in his film, and so on. This understated approach is one that I’m not fundamentally opposed to in any form, though it does seem to be in tension with the explicit separation of the film’s diegetic world and Chris’s story. Regardless of the synopsis’ promise that “the lines between reality and fiction start to blur,” there’s such a clear delineation between the Krieps/Roth and Wasikowska/Danielsen Lie stories here, communicated by voiceover and a continual narration, that it’s hard to have much emotional attachment to the latter, even considering the rather moving and accomplished work from both actors. The best we can do is either read Wasikowska as a stand-in for Krieps or simply enjoy the story on its own merits, neither of which emerges as a fully satisfying approach in the grand scheme of things.

Vicky Krieps as Chris in “Bergman Island.” (IFC Films)

The worlds do eventually connect when we learn that Chris has produced her film, in spite of Tony’s general sense of indifference. After she enters the Bergman house for the first time, finding Hampus inside, she lays down and falls asleep; when she awakes, it’s near the end of the shoot – a time jump between two naps. There’s a steadily intensified inference that she’s in love with Anders, the man playing Joseph, though we’re once again left with very little context to generate much meaning as to how this came about. Did she write the film inspired by her own never-to-be-fulfilled love affair with this particular actor? Or, alternately, was her screenplay an accidentally self-fulfilling prophecy? Is this even a real event? Did her time in the Bergman house, by bringing her closer to the spirit of the man and in a state of total solitude, activate her own creativity rather than stifle it? How do we reconcile that with the film’s broader critique of this masculine field, Bergman himself, and, frankly, the idea of auteurism altogether? Is Hampus the ghost of Ingmar Bergman?

That last one is a joke (probably), but any film that provokes such an immense volume of questions is one that is worth our attention. This is an incredibly unusual film, and my relationship to it has changed since I started writing this review. I started from a place of respectful skepticism, of the belief that I’d encountered an interesting film that simply didn’t cohere. I still question many of the choices made; the lack of emotional satisfaction brought about by the ending doesn’t dissipate that quickly. But through the course of working out my feelings on the film, I find myself even more compelled, intrigued, and maybe even frustrated by its distinct choices and its contradictions. 

The film ends with two curious moments. As he returns to visit Chris on the island, Tony brings their daughter June along this time. She asks him a very simple question: “Do ghosts really exist?” His answer is non-committal, but she re-frames it and keeps pushing by asking “Then why do you tell ghost stories?” There’s no answer once again, though she might as well be questioning the film’s guiding ethos at this point. We’ve witnessed a ghost story without an explicit ghost, an exploration of artists’ collective haunting by the intimidating image of those who came before – of their legacy, their personal life, and, in this case, the way in which their gender helped to shape their status as an icon. The film ends with June and Chris reuniting (as Tony saunters over, it should be mentioned), a joyous moment between mother and daughter that still prompts one to uneasily recall Chris’ earlier question: “Do you think you can create a great body of work and raise a family at the same time?” Have Chris and Tony devised a balance, creating their own answer to this question? Or are we witnessing a fleeting moment prior to an inevitable repetition – the start of a new cycle that sees artists chasing the ghosts of icons and unable to escape the mistakes of their past? The film, which abruptly ends on this sudden note, seems undecided, but that ambiguity lingers and deepens in the best possible way.

Star Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“Bergman Island” releases in select theaters and on VOD on October 15, 2021.

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