Making art requires wrestling with ghosts. They are inevitable. Ghosts of the artist’s heroes awaken invisibly from some great beyond and look at the drafts or dances or paintings. Traces of every person who has ever praised or criticized the artist’s talent, no matter how qualified – an aunt, a gallery director, a high school theater critic – hang in the air and whisper. Only very confident, very arrogant or very foolish artists set them completely.
Ingmar Bergman, the respected Swedish filmmaker, believed in ghosts more than anything else. Or so Chris and Tony (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) get to know when they visit their home on the island of Fårö, off the Swedish coast. Outsiders connect the island so strongly with Bergman that Mia Hansen-Løve’s excellent new film is simply called Bergman Island; Chris and Tony are the main characters, a couple of filmmakers who travel there for rest, recreation, creative work and tourism from Bergman.
They both love Bergman, and they love their daughter June, who lives with Chris’ mother while they are away. The trip is partly caused by a master class that Tony – more commercially successful than Chris and a little older than her – provides in the Bergman Center, near Bergman’s home where they live. The woman who greets them in the house when they arrive shows them around and says cheerfully but ominously that this is the house where Bergman shot his 1973 TV series Scenes from a marriage, “The movie that got millions of people divorced.” (The six-episode series was later cut into a nearly three-hour film.) The bed just upstairs where they were to sleep was the site of some of Bergman’s most devastating scenes in a chronicle of a collapse.
Chris is obviously skeptical that she can sleep in bed. She can not even work in the house. While Tony arranges her notebooks upstairs, she takes refuge in the windmill across the lawn, which has a tiny little space to suit her as she tries to write her next film. She can look across and wave to Tony and do the same at his desk.
It seems that Chris senses the ghosts that surround her, some more ingenious than others. (Let me be clear: Bergman Island is not a horror movie unless you want it.) She can feel it Scenes from a marriage characters and various others from Bergman’s work, of which he made much on Fårö Island. She senses the spirit of Ingrid von Rosen, Bergman’s fifth and last wife, whose death spurred Bergman to resume an abandoned belief in the afterlife. And of course, she works under the ghost of Bergman himself, whose place is still reserved for him in the small cinema on his property, and whose art is so honored that Chris finds himself bound in knots and tries to write. “No one expects Person, ”Tony tells her. “Thank God,” she replies.
You actually do not have to love Ingmar Bergman, or even have seen a Bergman movie, to find Bergman Island fantastic. Thoughtful, layered, deceptive light, it is among Hansen-Løve’s best work. The film is transparently not a tribute to the director or his era-defining work, an oeuvre that boasts Scenes from a marriage (recently reimagined as an HBO series starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac), Person, Crying and whispering, and many more. Chris and Tony (and, apparently, Hansen-Løve) love him, as do the cinephiles who flock to Fårö. But Hansen-Løve’s film is entirely her own.
Instead of trying to emulate or comment on Bergman, Hansen-Lion is interested in all the ways the ghosts Bergman felt haunt artists — and frankly all of them — while we try to both make things and live our lives. On their first visit to the Bergman Center, Chris asks the curators over dinner with questions about Bergman’s personal life. Was he involved in his children’s lives? Was he happy? Was he a good man?
The answer is essentially incorrect – he treated parenting as an activity he did not need to be personally involved in, despite having nine children for six different women. Chris is horrified. “I like a certain context,” she says. “I do not like it when artists I love do not behave well in reality.”
The idea of a context – of what’s going on in your real life, pouring into your art and vice versa – is at the heart of Bergman Island. Chris struggles to write while Tony the sailor sails along, throwing copious notes forward and then drafting a script for a film “about how invisible things circulate within a couple,” as he tells Chris. (Maybe Scenes from a marriage bedroom affects him after all.)
These invisible things, whatever they are, also seem to circulate between them. Chris and Tony are not really fighting and they are kind to each other, but as the film continues, the feeling that their relationship has entered its settlement period is inevitable. So midway through, when Chris apparently finally finds out what’s going to happen in her new movie, we’re asked to see their relationship through the new lens.
Bergman Island is about a movie within a movie, Chris’s movie, about a filmmaker named Amy (Mia Wasikowska), who has long been in love with her boyfriend from her teens, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie). Adult now, both have partners, and Amy also has a daughter. They have tried in the past and failed to make their relationship work. But when they meet again for a mutual friend’s wedding – where else? – Fårö Island, sparks fly again. They’re burning. It’s painful. And Amy has to face the hard work of banishing the ghost in the life she and Joseph could have had together so that it does not haunt her life relentlessly.
How much of this story is Chris’ pure invention, and how much is remixed and pulled out of her own life, even unconsciously? Tony seems to sense that there is more to Chris’ story than maybe even she knows, and tells her something ugly that he might not be the person she should tell about the movie. Chris seems surprised – but maybe she knows what he means.
In movies like Goodbye first love (2011) and Things to come (2016) Hansen-Løve showcased her talent for inviting us into the psychology of her characters without ever making them too explicit or simple. She loves to easily paint traces of the “invisible things” and invites us to lean in and notice them. Her intimate personal art often acts as wrestling of her own life. Now, ind Bergman Island, she turns her eye to the mysterious, intuitive and difficult to describe works of art. Chris’ story about Amy is marked by experiences we have just seen her have on Fårö Island, and other experiences we can only assume she has had.
Meanwhile, Hansen-Løve flashes and admits that she is doing the same; it seems clear that at least some of this film is struggling with its own relationship with the older, famous filmmaker Olivier Assayas, who ended in 2017. The couple has a daughter. That Hansen-Lion gets Chris to write about a director named Amy and then cast an actress named Mia to play her — Mia also her own name — may just be coincidence, but it’s consistent with the anagrammatic nature of Bergman Island. (Assaya and Hansen-Lion’s daughter Vicky, as it happens, also shares a name with Krieps, who plays Chris.)
So the ghost in a real relationship has inspired a fictional relationship, which in turn feeds a relationship within a relationship that Chris is considering Amy’s future and maybe her own. Bergman Islands inversions and twists are a joy to solve, but they run at a time that Chris has to contend with: Experiences, emotions, and people from the artist’s life will always beg to be reborn in art, even when creation is painful. Bergman Island twists to a conclusion that is much less miserable than those in Bergman’s film, suggesting that this telescopic narrative is actually about Chris finding the freedom she needs to decide which ghosts to be aware of. , and how to live peacefully among them.
Because, Bergman Island suggests ghosts will not be ignored. Our loves, our memories, the people we used to know and the people who have left us forever, those who frighten us and those who delight us, will always be with us. Ignore them completely, and our art and our lives lack depth; pay too much attention to them and we will be tied in knots. The challenge we all face every day is figuring out how to live cohesive lives in the midst of them.
Bergman Island opened in theaters on October 15th.
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