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

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

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Last Vermeer

Claes Bang and Vicky Krieps

The Last Vermeer is the true story of Han Van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire, who knocked out old masters by the likes of Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer, among others, during the Second World War and even managed to sell a “Vermeer” to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring for a fortune. Van Meegeren was initially brought to trial in the Netherlands after the War for having sold Göring what was supposed to be a real Vermeer, as a collaborator who had facilitated the expropriation of the cultural property of the Netherlands. But when he eventually admitted that the picture was fake, those charges were dropped. However, because of the skewed logic of a state barely able to come to terms with itself, the trial still went ahead, on the lesser charge of forgery. Van Meergeren became a national folk hero, which is an odd position for a convicted forger to find himself in, though Van Meegeren was no ordinary forger – he’s often claimed to be the best of all time.

The problem for a film like this, which wants to deal in heroes and villains, is that Van Meegeren was far from a hero. At the very best he was a selfish opportunist who managed to do very well out of the war. At worst he was a Nazi collaborator. And so, rather than tell Van Meegeren’s story straight up, the film inserts a decent character with whom we can all sympathise – an investigator got in by the occupying allies to restore looted art works to their original owners, and who just happens to run into Van Meegeren along the way.

Van Meegeren addresses the court
Van Meegeren’s moment in court

Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) is a Dutch Jew who spent the war fighting with the resistance against the Nazis. He’s a decent, though understandably angry man, cultured, fair, determined not to use a victor’s advantages to ride roughshod over justice. On the domestic front his wife, Leez (Marie Bach Hansen), has spent the war getting along famously with the higher echelons of the Nazis, and Piller’s marriage is now if not in ruins then extremely precarious.

However, all this set-up is thrown right into the background by the eventual, far-too-late revelation that Van Weegeren is more than just an art dealer who acted as middle man in the sale of a few dodgy works to some very dodgy people. In fact, this failed artist has been conducting a parallel career as a master forger, and doing it quite possibly for decades.

That’s the interesting story, Piller’s not so much. As for Piller’s assistant (Vicky Krieps, underused, having been so commanding in The Phantom Thread), his aide-de-camp Dekker (Roland Møller, brusquely oikish) and Ministry of Justice rival De Klerks (August Diehl, dressed as if playing a comedy Nazi), they all also get in the way of Van Meergeren, fine actors though they all are.

Though there’s too much Piller, Danish actor Claes Bang is a gift to the role, a commanding, urbane presence capable of being silky and threatening (as he was again in the BBC’s Dracula a year later). As for Guy Pearce as Van Meegeren – foppish, preening, effete, dandyish, prissy – we’re never left in any doubt about what we’re meant to feel about him, even when he’s beginning to look like one of the good guys, which is an unlikely switcheroo for someone in a silvery page-boy hairstyle.

It’s a really good story told in a bafflingly obscure way, though if I were first time director Dan Friedkin I’d be congratulating myself on the solidity and movie-ish-ness of the finished product. For all its peek-a-boo attitude to Van Meegeren, it’s an otherwise admirably straightahead telling of the story – fine Amsterdam locations, a cast that’s solid all the way down, evocatively lit and scored, without ever tipping too far into heritage film-making cliche.

Two other films about looted Nazi art and restitution spring to mind – 1962’s The Train, starring Burt Lancaster, and 2014’s The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney and his pals. This tends to the latter, tasteful rather than urgent.

Qualms to one side, it’s still a good-looking and fascinating film, and it’s to a large extent redeemed by its the big courtroom finale – experts exposed, Piller vindicated – done with a flourish. And, finally, we start to get as much of Van Meegeren as the story really needs, though we’re also still getting plenty of Piller. So there is such a thing as having too much Bang for your buck.

The Last Vermeer – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021