Bergman Island (2021)

Mia Hansen-Løve | 1hr 53min

The rocky isle of Fårö is laden with the cultural weight of renowned Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, and for those artists who come to the island looking to follow in his footsteps and the residents who can barely go a day without hearing his name, his impact is inescapable. It is evident in Bergman Island that director Mia Hansen-Løve is no exception, and neither are Chris and Tony, the foreign filmmaking couple at its centre. Their pilgrimage to Fårö may be motivated by Bergman, of whom they are both admirers, though for Chris it also possesses a light beauty which is not always present in his dark, psychological examinations of humanity.

The local populace here has at least capitalised well on their claim to fame, with Bergman Safaris whisking tourists around the island and historical shooting locations being turned into guesthouses. As Chris and Tony settle into the famous bedroom from Scenes From a Marriage, complete with an identical gold-and-white queen bed, they share a half-joking acknowledgement that staying there may not be healthy for their own relationship. And indeed, troubles do emerge along the way when Tony neglects to assist in Chris’ writing and she stands him up for a scheduled tour, though this does not motivate some magnificent artistic epiphany for her as it did for Bergman. Instead, Hansen-Løve uses this relationship to sketch out a divide in filmmaking methodologies between the tortured artist and the hopeful creator, both of whom struggle to understand the other.

It is when Bergman Island takes a dive into the film imagined by Chris during this retreat at the one-hour mark that it steps up to a new level, not necessarily for the pure power of its narrative, but rather for its formal interaction with the main storyline. As she narrates her ideas to a disinterested Tony, Hansen-Løve cuts straight to the imagined film in her mind, where two Americans, Amy and Joseph, travel to Fårö for a wedding and incidentally rekindle an old romance. Though this starts as a diversion from the main story, it eventually grows into a full act on its own, dominating a good forty minutes of this two-hour film, until Hansen-Løve begins to lightly toggle between both realities at once.

This may be the most Bergmanesque aspect of a film that is otherwise questioning how any Fårö-inspired piece of art could possibly escape from beneath the shadow of a director whose legacy has taken over the entire island. Objects and costumes begin to crossover between Chris and Amy’s respective worlds, until a collision of sorts unites them both into one, blurring boundaries in such a way that feels distinctly evocative of the Swedish auteur, though not entirely imitative. To point out those places where Hansen-Løve falls short of reaching the same stylistic or formal heights as Bergman is to neglect her statement about true originality in art, but regardless – one must wonder whether this might have been a little more even had its alternating structure been set up earlier on.

The history of art weighs heavy on Bergman Island, and it is evident that even in trying to defiantly escape its shadow, Hansen-Løve’s admiration and distaste for the European director is built into her artistic DNA. By endeavouring to peer past his creations and find that which inspired him in the first place though, fresh perspectives begin to emerge. In the lilting harps, bagpipes, and pan flutes that permeate the film, she also imbues this stony, Baltic island and its Nordic architecture with an expressive texture, building on her search for a new kind of sensitive appreciation. Where Bergman saw severe austerity in the landscapes of Fårö, Hansen-Løve discovers optimism and fantasy, and once Bergman Island hits its stride in its second half, she effectively weaves it deep into the layers of its storytelling.

Bergman Island is currently playing in theatres.

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