“Bergman Island” – Together alone [MOVIE REVIEW]
Mia Hansen-Løve likes ambiguity and in her new movie, “Bergman Island,” she has created a film that is as ambiguous as it is enigmatic.
Chris, an actress, and partner Tony, a famous director, arrive on Fåro Island, the isolated site of Ingmar Bergman’s most famous films and his home for the last years of his life. The occasion is the annual summer festival and Tony, presenting his most recent film, is one of the honorees. Chris, missing their child, feels alone, isolated, and subsidiary.
Both Chris and Tony revere the artistry of Bergman, though both have different favorite films. The island oozes this famous Swede out of every pore leading to discussions of Bergman and his art. He was a notoriously difficult man. Married five times, known for his extra-marital affairs with three of his most renowned actresses, Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, and Liv Ullman, as well as dozens of mistresses, he was an absent father to nine children. Chris and Tony discuss whether one can be both an accomplished artist and a good human being. Chris is more upset that the answer might be negative; Tony, less so. Is this how Chris views their marriage? It would appear so although nothing in the portrayal of Tony, a very successful artist, would lead us to believe that she has grounds. Is he responsible for her insecurities? Is her need for attention unreasonable? These are questions that resonate throughout the film and can only be answered through one’s own personal perspective.
Resenting the focus on Tony, she distances herself. When he takes an official tour of the island, Chris disappears to the beach where she meets a film student who feeds her ego. Touring the island on her own, map in hand, she seeks out the location of “Through a Glass Darkly,” the first film shot on Fåro. She is distressed that she can’t find the house, something she would have learned had she taken the tour with Tony. The house was a façade put up only for that film and demolished afterwards. Perhaps this is most emblematic of their relationship. He openly embraces everything offered to him (and her) on the island; Chris wants to find things on her own, sometimes misinterpreting the significance of events that often highlight the differences in their age, stature, and ego, or lack thereof. Does she view their marriage as a façade?
While Tony is on the island as a part of the festival, an heir to Bergman in his art, Chris has come to try to write a screenplay, a task she is finding very daunting. She seems to blame Tony for her inability to focus. When, finally, she has most of her outline completed, they sit down together so she can tell her story for his feedback. It is a personal story of love, loss, hope, despair and growth. Tony is interrupted several times during her process by business, something she takes as disinterest. Still she continues on with her story as it morphs from her imaginative telling, to what may or may not be her direction of the filming, to a future real life confusion between the characters and the actors who play them, to her future with or without Tony.
This melding of present, future, and future present is the enigma and appeal of Løve’s film. Focusing almost entirely on Chris in relation to her husband and her environment it becomes more a blossoming of Chris as an artist, more secure in her own identity and voice.
The blurred lines of present reality to future fiction as it impinges on future reality are what makes this film unique. The ending, opaque and oblique, is not fully formed. Granted, Løve intended it to be ambiguous and for the viewer to bring his or her own interpretation of the relationship between Chris and Tony going forward. But good intentions do not necessarily a satisfying ending make.
Løve focused on some of these same issues in her previous film, “Things to Come.” But in that film, the heroine, Nathalie, knew who she was and had no one to blame but herself for the tangential life she led. Chris seems to want someone to blame; a force holding her back that is making her a victim. This is a premise unsupported in the story. Chris, when we meet her, is whiny, insecure, and sour. She seems to need to find external reasons for her unhappiness. There is nothing to indicate that Tony has actively done anything to discourage her ambitions. As a character trait, insecurity and vulnerability work to set up her character and the gradual disappearance of those attributes as she sees her dreamlike, possibly autobiographical script become reality. Together at the beginning, they are as she finishes her film, and then together again at the end when Tony arrives with their daughter. With a fade to black, Løve would like us to decide their future; she just hasn’t dug deeply enough into character to allow us that option.
Tim Roth as Tony is wonderful. A quiet force with eyes that dance and the body language that conveys patience and understanding, he is probably more sympathetic than Løve intended because so much of Chris’s angst is intended to be rooted in Tony’s indifference. Roth’s portrayal of his character is a force necessitating greater depth on the part of Chris. Therein lies part of the problem. Vicky Krieps as Chris is so initially unsympathetic and lacking in charisma that it is difficult to make the leap to her emergence as an independent artist. Some of this should be laid at the feet of Løve who must have encouraged this interpretation. Krieps does not earn her character development. It’s not there and then all of a sudden it is.
Most entrancing are the always fabulous Mia Wasikowska as Amy, the lead in Chris’s film, who successfully blends the fictional character and actress in the film. Her ability to combine vulnerability and insecurity with self-confidence would have made her a better Chris. Anders Danielsen Lie plays Amy’s counterpart Joseph who also melds the character he plays in the film within a film to the man who may or may not have actually had a role in Chris’s life before Tony. It is inconceivable that this Norwegian actor with major careers in France and Scandinavia has not been seen in English language films prior to this. His looks and the subtlety of his performance should make him a sought after star of the first order.
“Bergman Island” is an interesting and engrossing film within a film within a film that travels from present reality to filmed reality and back again to a future reality. Though never satisfactorily addressed, the question of whether one can be a good person and a good artist is rather beside the point. Each premise involves sacrifice and compromise. I would maintain that great art has never been achieved with compromise. In all likelihood neither Chris nor Tony are destined for the kind of immortal greatness afforded a Bergman who was, in reality, a nasty piece of work but an artist of the greatest magnitude.
Opening Friday October 15 at the Landmark on Pico and the Laemmle Monica Film Center as well as other Laemmle theaters. Available October 22 on Digital Platforms.