NYFF 2021 review: Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve)

“Mia Hansen-Løve’s delightful romp should bring her brand of serene humanity to a larger English-speaking audience.”

With Bergman Island, Mia Hansen-Løve accomplishes some major firsts in her steadily rising film career. It marks her first film to play in Competition at Cannes – after prior showings in Berlin, Locarno, San Sebastián and Un Certain Regard. But more importantly, it is her first foray into English language filmmaking, working with stars like Mia Wasikowska and Tim Roth. And based on this entry, I would say she makes a much more seamless transition to the English language than any number of international auteurs who take the leap and fail spectacularly.

Shot on location and taking place on the Swedish island of Fårö – the Bergman Island of the title – Hansen-Løve’s breezy new film is actually three shorter films rolled into one. The first is an autobiographical tale of married filmmakers Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Roth), who arrive on Fårö to write their respective screenplays. The second is a Fårö travelogue as Chris and Tony take in the sights amid bouts of writing. And the third one is a film-within-the-film – the script that Chris is writing.

Fårö, much like the American Martha’s Vineyard, has been a popular Swedish retreat for the affluent and enlightened intelligentsia for decades now. It doubles as a Bergman Disneyland of sorts, as the late great Swedish filmmaking legend Ingmar Bergman lived on the island and made several important pictures there. We vicariously experience popular attractions on the Bergman safari through Chris and Tony, visit locations featured in his classic films and take in the trivia flung out by visiting vacationers. Introducing the house from Scenes from a Marriage, a tour guide quips “it is the film that caused a million divorces”. There is some gentle ribbing of cinephiles too as we hear some snooty film tourists debating what does and does not constitute a trilogy in Bergman’s filmography. It is all very affable and charming.

More consequential is the main thrust of the story – the relationship between Chris and Tony – based on Hansen-Løve’s own relationship with French filmmaking powerhouse Olivier Assayas. They were a couple for 15 years and have a daughter together. Chris is suffering from writer’s block, stuck on page one; whereas Tony easily fills page after page daily (for a film supposedly about BDSM). When she asks for assistance, he helpfully tells her nobody is expecting her to write Persona.

It is all here, the feeling of inadequacy that Chris has due to Tony’s more established career, the professional jealousy inevitable between partners sharing the same profession, the distaste for being condescended to, even unintentionally, by the more successful spouse. Hansen-Løve has stated that she made the film in English because making it in French would have cut too close to the bone, and a foreign language allows her to tell this story as fiction rather than strict autobiography. She needn’t have worried. This portion of the film is also its sketchiest and most repetitive with the same point being made over and over again. Yes, we get it, she feels like an underachiever compared to her partner. But there is nothing more to it than that, no deeper insight, no greater epiphany. A flirtation Chris begins with a visiting young film student also doesn’t go anywhere, leaving this section of the film underpowered in terms of emotional development.

Far more interesting and elevating is Chris’s film-within-a-film which tells the tale of ex-lovers Amy (Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie, who is having a banner year between this film and Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person In the World). They meet several years after their break-up, attending a common friend’s wedding on Fårö. Each is attending without their current spouse and the possibility and temptation of cheating are unavoidable.

Wasikowska reminds us once again why she has been such a reliable arthouse star for over a decade now. She brings her famously shy and reserved charisma to bear as we see Amy burning up with desire for Joseph. Female desire is rarely portrayed or portrayed well in cinema and you can see the difference that a filmmaker like Hansen-Løve makes, as she brings it to life with a sense of yearning and empathy, of wanting to reach out and be intimate. It will be very easy for audiences to get invested in this relationship as Wasikowska and Danielsen Lie have terrific chemistry and bring genuine sexual heat to their stolen encounters. We almost wish Hansen-Løve had just made this film instead, chucking away the frame story of Chris and Tony.

Much has been made about the meta elements of the story as lines between reality and fiction start blurring and characters from real life begin appearing in the film-within-the-film and vice versa. But just when it looks like the film is heating up and about to head into mindfuck territory, it abruptly ends. The meta elements prove to be fleeting at best and Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory already applied such conceits to more novel and poignant effect.

While the three parts that comprise Bergman Island feel unequal in interest, Hansen-Løve shows skill in zooming in and out of the three components with ease and offering up a relatively unified whole. The film remains accessible and very watchable, perhaps too much so, though it isn’t necessarily shallow. It is exactly what you see on the screen. What you see is what you get. And what you get is very undemanding when you might have wished for something deeper and more cutting.

Messier than this neat film is perhaps the story of its making, though you wouldn’t know it by seeing it. Krieps and Roth’s parts were originally meant for Greta Gerwig and John Turturro. Hansen-Løve said female filmmakers have a sense of authority about them and thus Gerwig would have been ideal for the part, being a filmmaker herself. But a few weeks before filming in summer 2018, Gerwig dropped out to direct Little Women, Turturro followed suit and Hansen-Løve was left with only half a cast with filming mere days away.

Resourcefully, she headed to Fårö anyways and filmed half the movie – the film-within-the-film with Wasikowska and Danielsen Lie. She quickly cast Krieps as Gerwig’s replacement and filmed what she could as her husband’s part hadn’t been cast yet. Hansen-Løve headed back to Fårö a year later, in summer 2019, to finally finish filming the other half with Roth in place as Krieps’s husband this time.

Regardless of the casting and filming shenanigans, the four leads deliver excellent performances, with the ladies carrying the day since they are a bit more fleshed out than the men. Roth is ever reliable and Danielsen Lie seems to be making a name for himself as European arthouse leading man extraordinaire.

Hansen-Løve has always had a good pictorial sense and it is on ample display in Denis Lenoir’s sunny lensing of the beautiful locales in Fårö. She was reluctant to shoot her first English language feature in 2.4:1 scope fearing it might end up feeling “too American” but we are thankful Lenoir convinced her otherwise. Proceeds from the Fårö tourism department should flow to Hansen-Løve and her DP as well-heeled cinephiles would find it hard to resist the urge to book tickets to Fårö pronto after watching the film.

All in all, this is a delightful romp that should bring Hansen-Løve’s brand of serene humanity to a larger English-speaking audience. Though we hope she will challenge herself and her audiences a bit more the next time around. She clearly has it in her and remains one of the most vital and individual voices in cinema today.