If you’re among the narrow sliver of the moviegoing public whose favorite director is Ingmar Bergman, then you’re sold on Mia Hansen-Love’s new film, “Bergman Island,” on its title alone. The French director shot the movie on Fårö, the island off Sweden’s southeastern coast where Bergman lived and worked on at least six films. Among other things, the film (playing now at Living Room Theaters) is manna for Bergman-files, filled with more trivia about the director than a TCM retrospective.
But the late, fatalistic Swede is not the subject of Hansen-Love’s experimentally structured, contemporary-set dramedy: He’s more an element of its scenery, a ghost in its machine. The movie is a meditation on creativity, subliminal influence and gender equity in the shadow of a national treasure, and it’s one of the most illuminating pictures of the year.
Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth play, respectively, Chris and Tony, a filmmaking couple who have alighted on Fårö for a special screening of one of Tony’s movies. Chris hopes to use the time to develop a screenplay amid the seaside majesty of the historic surroundings, but the beauty of the place has the opposite effect on her writer’s block: “How can I not feel like a loser?” she ponders, if she’s unable to come up with anything remotely as interesting as “Through a Glass Darkly?”
It’s hard for issues of self-esteem and jealousy not to come into play when her husband is receiving fawning admiration from fans and is making progress on his next project, and the emotions are compounded by their fraught location. They’re staying in the very house where Bergman shot his shattering “Scenes From a Marriage,”—“the film that made millions of people divorce,” the property manager offers, with typically Swedish gallows humor.
Without a false note to be found, and resonating with recognizable human behavior, Hansen-Love’s English-language debut eschews tight plotting for a more wandering structure befitting a protagonist searching for inspiration. “Bergman Island” is a cineaste’s Fårö travelogue, allowing Chris and Tony’s various and separate excursions to shape their senses of discovery. For all the insights it offers about its titular director (“It’s like a horror movie without catharsis,” Chris proposes, after they attend a private screening of “Cries and Whispers”), the dominant influence on “Bergman Island” is more likely Roberto Rossellini’s enigmatic “Voyage to Italy.”
And yet unlike these forbears, it’s a movie that’s light on its feet, even playful. After Tony announces that he’s setting his next movie on Fårö, Chris, too, begins to germinate a relationship drama that takes place on the island, and as she proposes the outline to Tony, Hansen-Love films it: For the last hour of “Bergman Island,” we nearly abandon the “real” characters for the fictional ones living in Chris’s head, most prominently Amy (a phenomenal Mia Wasikowska), a woman who reconnects with Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), a old flame, at a destination wedding, even though both are in committed relationships.
To what extent is Amy, Chris’ fictional heroine, a reflection of her author? It’s a pertinent question, as figures from Chris’ actual sojourn on Fårö, like the kind local film student who offers her a tour of the island, appear in her story as well. The deeper “Bergman Island” delves into the fetal movie within the movie, the more Chris’ realities merge, and ultimately collide with Hansen-Love’s invisible offstage presence. Like Bergman’s looming masterpiece “Persona,” this postmodern wink of a film contains doubles within doubles; art imitates life imitates art. Wherever he is, Bergman is cracking a rare, knowing smile at the movie that bears his name.
Bergman Island is now playing at Living Room Theaters at FAU.