By Gerald Peary
Bergman Island is a curious, intelligent film that suffers from a disappointing breakdown.
Bergman Island, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theatre.
A high point of my life as a film critic was being among the invited, a decade ago, to visit Fårö, the island off the coast of island where Ingmar Bergman had lived. It was there that he’d shot many of his classics, including Through a Glass Darkly, Persona, and parts of Scenes from a Marriage. Our little cadre of critics watched movies in the theater Bergman had built, where he viewed a 35mm movie every afternoon at 3 p.m. We toured his home, and we saw his austere grave in a local cemetery.
So it was déjà vu with Bergman Island, the new feature from France’s Mia Hansen-Løve, in which the filmmaker transports her live-together protagonists to the same annual cinema event we’d attended on Fårö: Bergman Week. Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps) are both filmmakers, but he’s the reason they are brought to Fårö and given a house to stay in. On the calendar of events is a seminar, in which Tony will show one of his pictures and submit to a Q&A with the audience.
Their guest home is a beauty, located on grounds behind Bergman’s movie theater. But it does come with a warning: episodes of Scenes from a Marriage were shot there and, as their hostess notes, that film has caused more divorces than any other ever made. So are we to think that Tony and Chris’s relationship is in trouble, on the edge of a possible breakup? Hansen-Løve’s point-of-view is pointedly subtle. Our couple never have a shouting match, never a momentous disagreement. And yet there are clues to tensions between them.
It’s Tony who seems sure of himself, content with his life, perhaps a touch smug. Nobody ever comments on it, but surely his career is going better than that of his more artsy wife. He’s the star “auteur,” and those attending Bergman Week crowd in to see his movie. We’re given one scene of it, and it seems a schlocky horror film. He must be a “cult” genre director like John Carpenter, or Wes Craven, whose Last House on the Left was a seedy remake of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. And how does his significant other feel about his work? Chris never says, though she walks out of his seminar in the middle. While Tony talks on, she stumbles into a private adventure, getting a tour of the island from a knowing Swedish college student. They swim together in the Baltic Sea.
Is Chris weary of Tony, pining for a love affair? Nothing overt happens to indicate this. The drama, and the potential melodrama, remain muted. We have to look very very closely to see a flirtation between Chris and this young bespectacled student. There is no kiss, no embrace. Nor is there a show of jealousy from Tony when Chris comes home a bit late. All we detect is that Tony is somewhat disappointed that Chris didn’t stay on and support him when he spoke. As for Chris’s dissatisfactions: she stays isolated from the other Bergman Week participants, not going on a bus tour of the island to show where the great Swedish director shot his masterly films. Unlike the adulatory crowd, including obsessive film critics (one of them is my Chicago friend, Gabe Klinger), Chris alone has hesitations about Ingmar Bergman. She can’t get beyond the fact that he had nine children and basically ignored them so he could make movies and direct theater. For Chris, that’s not OK.
All that I’ve described above is a kind of background, a waiting and setup, for Chris’s “move.” Bergman Island is ultimately her film, or, rather, her film-within-the-film. On a long walk with an often distracted Tony, she tells him the story of the screenplay she’s writing and, lo, the script COMES TO LIFE. For at least a half hour, it takes over the screen. It also takes place in Fårö, a parallel Fårö. And, briefly, it’s about a young American filmmaker, Amy (Mia Wasikowska) who comes to the island for a friend’s gala wedding and runs into her ex-love Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), who broke her heart. Will they reunite, or will he break her heart a second time?
And here is where Bergman Island, a curious, intelligent film to this point, breaks down. Amy’s movie should be far more interesting, far more thrilling, than the intentionally low-key story of Chris and Tony. It is much more passionate and sexual, but it’s also banal and labored. Frankly, I didn’t give a damn if Amy and Joseph of the movie-within-a-movie worked out, didn’t work out. And I wanted to get back to the hijacked Story 1 and learn far more about Chris and Tony than Hansen-Løve was willing to offer. Definitely frustrating, a disappointment.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, ex-curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His latest feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, has played at film festivals around the world.