Mia Hansen-Løve’s wistful tale of escapism to the idyllic shores of Baltic Sea island Fårö, Sweden appears to be a tantalising holiday advert, as well as a great homage to legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. While the references are all there in new drama Bergman Island and will not be lost on fans of the iconic auteur, there are also many layers to unpeel, as we watch the trajectory of a relationship between two artists on their writing retreat. Only then does the striking setting revert to just that, and the focus sets on the pressures of career accomplishment within a marriage, coupled with writer’s block.
Tony (Tim Roth) is a successful and well-known filmmaker who arrives with wife and screenwriter Chris (Vicky Krieps) on the island with great expectations. Both are looking forward to being inspired by the very place Bergman shot his most famous movies, while soaking up the culture, fresh air and good living that the mini work break promises. Staying in a collection of buildings once used by Bergman that hosts its very own screening room for his films, what begins as a rewarding creative venture for the pair begins to evoke personal insecurities and threatens the serenity.
Like so many of Hansen-Løve’s films, the viewer blissfully ambles into Bergman Island in summertime, intoxicated by its picturesque surroundings like Tony and Chris are, and exploring the sights with as much thirst and passion as the characters. Almost cinéma vérité in style at times and left to breathe a little too long in pace in some places, the narrative eventually uncovers hidden truths and troubles as the creative tables turn and resentment mounts. The beginning half merely captures tranquil bliss as we play a waiting game before the inevitable disruption begins. It is only as Chris finds inspiration away from the confines of the Bergman landmarks and reassesses the influence of the island’s questionable celebrity that things begin to get interesting.
Hansen-Løve provides a parallel love story to illustrate Chris’s artistic rebirth – or is it cathartic expression, the writer’s biopic? The viewer is left to decide as reality and fiction blend in parts, resulting confusion in some areas – such as one scene when Chris wakes from an impromptu sleep at a former Bergman beach dwelling. The following scenes after this occurence appear to be left for the viewer to decipher, but the central narrative changes so suddenly that it feels unexplained, especially as Krieps and Mia Wasikowska as Amy, the girl in the dreamlike sequence, share a scene at one point.
Roth and Krieps’ performances feel effortless and natural responses to their situation, as though we are encountering the island for the first time with the couple. Wasikowska in the parallel love story is as enticing to watch as ever as she experiences a love that never died. All of these performances are further complimented by Denis Lenoir’s exquisite cinematography, an empathetic eye recording a very private moment of a character, while throwing open the frame to catch a stunning vista.
Bergman Island may have many plot ambiguities, but the solid performances and breathtaking scenery make Hansen-Løve’s new film an intriguing watch, with or without a passion for filmmaker Bergman. It is an artist’s daydream as Hansen-Løve appraises what it means to be creative with all the advantages to do so.