Bergman Island

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French writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve genuflects before the master, Ingmar Bergman, in her playful and reverential drama set on Fårö (pronounced foe-rer, more or less), the island where Bergman wrote and shot some of his films, and which is now dedicated to promoting his legacy.

In meta fashion, Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony are a pair of film-makers arriving on Fårö to seek inspiration for the next projects they are working on. Renting the house where Bergman once shot parts of Scenes from a Marriage, or so they (and we) are told by the woman showing them around, they get down to work, him beavering away in the bedroom, her in the mill next door, and us waiting for life to start imitating art (or should that be art imitating life imitating art imitating life?).

Between times they visit the screening cinema where HE once showed his films, and Tony, clearly the more successful of the two, gives talks to fans of his work. There is also a Bergman Safari to go on, full of the sort of people you’d expect to see on a Bergman Safari – a bit older, grizzled, hairy, earnest, polite, intellectual and Nordic looking, for the most part.

At a certain point Chris gets stuck on what she’s writing and starts telling her story to Tony, in an attempt to break the logjam. A movie within a movie suddenly starts up, this one with Mia Wasikowska in it, as Amy, a forlorn young woman visiting Fårö (again) and bumping into Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), an old flame for whom the fire still burns strongly.

Amy, too, is a Bergman nut, and in her world there is also Bergmanesque angst to be experienced. She’s on the island for a wedding and it (and Joseph) fan the embers of her smouldering love back into a passionate roar. Anthems of the lovelorn, such as Abba’s The Winner Takes It All and the Tina Charles hit I Love to Love (But My Baby Just Wants to Dance), start popping up on the soundtrack.

Amy and Joseph
Amy and Joseph

See-sawing between these two stories – though more interested in Amy’s it must be said – Hansen-Løve has a couple more tricks up her arthouse sleeve, neither of which is exactly unexpected. First, she pushes the meta-trickery a bit more – so what starts out as a story about a Bergman nut told by a Bergman nut in a film written and made by a Bergman nut – becomes slightly more complex as elements of Story A start popping up in Story B. And then taking the meta to the point of metastasisation, Hansen-Løve reminds us that the whole thing is a dramatic construct when one of her characters uses another character’s actual real-life name.

Like the Bergman Safari that visits the locations where the Swedish auteur’s movies were shot, this is a tour of Bergmanland, or Bergmania, done with nods to the austere style of the man himself and so it won’t mean half as much to those who have no knowledge of Bergman’s s work as to those who do.

If you are a fan, this film is for you. And Hansen-Løve chucks the odd bit of meat to the out-and-out haters – “Maybe three critics thought he was amazing,” one Fårö resident abruptly says to Amy at a party. “But there is a world outside your own asshole. Fuck Bergman!” he continues, clearly sick of never being half as fascinating as a man who died in 2007.

There’s also, handled with a certain amount of delicacy, the question of Bergman the man versus Bergman the artist. How did he manage to be so prolific and also father nine children by six different women? Answer: the women did the child-rearing. Bergman dealt with the “pram in the hall” (as the critic Cyril Connolly termed the artistically stultifying effect of domesticity) by walking right past it.

The plaintive folk music of Robin Williamson, of The Incredible String Band fame, is used liberally and adds a whiff of the pagan to everything – Smiles on a Midsommar Night, if you like. There’s no death, no screaming, it’s all very civilised. And yet, under it all, dark forces are lurking in this strange, evocative and bizarrely compelling drama. Perhaps, under it all, it is a horror movie.

Bergman Island – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema: Criterion’s lavish box set containing 39 Bergman films – buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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