Bergman Island

Chris and Tony

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

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

All Is Forgiven

Constance Rousseau as teenage Pamela

All Is Forgiven (Tout est pardonné) was the first feature Mia Hansen-Løve made, in 2007, when she was about 25/26. It’s an interesting debut and sets the tone for a career built on small, carefully crafted human-relationship dramas going for the slow burn rather than the big melodramatic bang.

The Nordic name is a bit of a bum steer. Hansen-Löve is French, was born in Paris, and works in the distinctly French cinematic tradition, itself a continuation of the French literary tradition – Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola etc.

Which is another way of saying that her films are about recognisable people having a bad time. Here it’s never really certain whether it’s the dad who’s having the bad time, the wife, or the daughter. He, Victor (Paul Blain), is a handsome wiry guy who fancies himself as a writer but isn’t quite so good at buckling down to the work. Instead he drinks, or takes drugs, or eyes up women and files them away somewhere in a “to be continued” folder in his brain. She, Annette (Marie-Christine Friedrich), is an Austrian who came to Paris to be with the man she loved, had a child, then took fright/flight and relocated the entire family back to Vienna. Now, back in Paris again, she and Victor are making another go of it.

And between the two of them is Pamela (played by Victoire Rousseau as a child and her sister Constance as a teenager), a quiet, watchful kid caught in the middle as her parents’ marriage doesn’t so much fall apart as get stuck on the rocks.

The film divides into three chapters – Vienna, Return to Paris and Pamela, 11 Years Later, when Pamela, now pretty much grown up, is reunited with her father, all cleaned up, so he says, for a tentative relationship with a man she’s half forgotten, and he possibly her, for all his protestations.

Annette and Victor
Annette and Victor

This is a film about growing up – the man and the girl – told as a string of vignettes. Hansen-Løve is particularly good on these little moments. Vibes. The way a man catches a woman’s eye at a party and a little spark flashes across. The way a young woman enters a nightclub and feels liberated in the dark. And she uses them as little palate cleansers between moments of dramatic heft.

There are no engineered climaxes in this film, nothing that feels like it’s there to satisfy a genre convention, or a clock-watcher’s need to hit a beat by a certain point in order for the payoff to come down the road. All Is Forgiven feels natural. It isn’t – it’s highly contrived – but Hansen-Løve isn’t following a formula laid down by a screenwriting guru (or app).

In this film big moments come and go almost unnoticed, and emotional climaxes that seem to have been written in stone never materialise. Hansen-Løve is playing with us, nicely.

You’d not peg it as a first film, in terms of its self assurance and the performances Hansen-Løve gets from her actors. Little things suggest it is, like the way the action cuts to 11 years later and Victor, Annette and Victor’s sensible and caring sister Martine (Carole Franck) all look exactly the same. Same hairstyles. He’s not gone even a tiny bit greyer. Budget? Or again are we being played with a bit? Time moves on but people don’t?

It’s Constance Rousseau’s first film too, and she’s just right as the grown-up(ish) Pamela, a clear-eyed and sweet daughter nervous about meeting a man whose reputation has been curated by the ex-wife who has never forgiven him.

Stuff does happen in All Is Forgiven, big stuff, but it’s never presented as “big” to us, the viewer, even though it’s enormous for the person experiencing it. In many respects that’s the opposite of the way most dramatists work, and it’s why Mia Hansen-Løve is so interesting.

All Is Forgiven – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022