No one’s expecting Persona.
When Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) are trying to choose what 35mm Ingmar Bergman film to watch in the late director’s own screening room (while the projectionist brilliantly does everything but roll his eyes waiting for the selection), the former suggests The Seventh Seal because it’s his most popular title and one of the few she hasn’t yet seen. I felt that comment because it’s the only Bergman I have seen. It’s perfect then that Tony would dismiss it with a frown and lament how he hates it—probably precisely because it’s so popular. He’s a Bergman snob after all and a famed director himself invited to Fårö Island (Bergman’s biggest inspiration) to screen his latest film. Cinephiles get off on pretension. He desires obscurity.
They eventually settle on Cries and Whispers, not because it’s rare (it’s one of the many Bergman works released by Criterion Collection), but because the projectionist is about to send it back to where it came from. There’s scarcity of another kind then to get Tony’s juices flowing and occupy Chris’ much more introspective thoughts about the experience overall. They’ve both left their young daughter to come to Fårö for inspiration as they look to complete new scripts, but they treat the experience in vastly different ways. Tony sees it as a conquest. Chris as an educational retreat. He could write anywhere regardless of serenity, quiet, or landscapes. She demands silence, purpose, and inspiration. She’ll find it too. Mostly from the ever-widening chasm of their love.
This is Bergman Island, Mia Hansen-Løve‘s latest personal work dealing with art, love, and the struggle to balance them together. She ultimately uses Bergman as the antithesis of merging the two, calling out his having nine children with six wives and the fact that he was distant from them all enough to make it so one daughter didn’t know he was her father. His failings where it came to family, however, don’t discredit the films themselves—their inherent pain and anguish perhaps a mirror of his existence and worldview. Just because he took the beauty of this place and projected heartache upon it doesn’t mean everyone else must. But it also doesn’t mean you can’t either. Maybe that beauty allows one to look inward and search for catharsis.
If nothing else, Chris embraces its escape. She tries to bring Tony into its freeing sense of endless possibilities, but he’s constantly more devoted to his work (writing, screening, answering the phone) than her. So she goes it alone, makes a friend in Swedish university student Hampus (Hampus Nordenson), and begins to crack the outline of her story about two people lost in love yet destined to be apart. Is it a metaphor for her own faltering relationship with Tony? Maybe. Is it an homage to Bergman who shot Scenes from a Marriage in the bedroom Chris is sleeping in right now? Maybe. It might also just be a fiction populated with characters she’s interested in following to their yet unknown conclusion. A conclusion left to the imagination.
Hansen-Løve’s film leaves most things to it, leaving it to us to decide how deep we want to go. I’d probably have more to say if I was more familiar with her career (I enjoyed Things to Come a lot, Eden a bit less) or familiar with Bergman’s at all. Where some see callbacks to his masterpieces, I saw trees. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Hansen-Løve isn’t the type of filmmaker to intentionally alienate her audience. She instead provides diehards an extra level to reach both ends of the spectrum. I can therefore enjoy it solely for Chris’ journey. How she embraces her independence, recognizes Tony’s penchant for treating her like some stranger asking to submit a spec script, and turns her tumult into art.
Seeing how different these characters are (there’s a great crosscut sequence where Tony is on an organized tour frowning at its rote machinations while Chris is being led around by a local to embrace spontaneity) forces us to realize that she’s the more captivating and likeable of the pair. She’s the one asking questions while he just nods regardless of understanding or interest. She’s the one trying to get his attention while he politely grins in that way that says, “I’ll entertain you, but please don’t let this nonsense go on too long.” We don’t actually know how good he is (the only glimpse of his work we see looks like a b-list horror), but her talent is unmistakable thanks to Hansen-Løve turning her outline into reality.
This tactic receives added intrigue upon turning full-on meta by the end, but it can be jarring enough initially to take you out of the film. Suddenly we’re leaving Chris and Tony to follow Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) instead as they come to the island for a wedding. They’ve been in love for years, but always either too early or too late to build something together. She wonders if this is their opportunity to do so and he seems ready to comply until oscillating between coldness and thawing with a mixed bag of signals. They play games—sometimes on the same page and sometimes not; get close with a mixture of yearning and regret; and find themselves hurt yet again once reality kicks in.
Is it Chris working out her feelings for Tony? Hansen-Løve reminiscing about her own failed love? A combination of both or something completely different? Dealer’s choice. All I know is that the emotions are authentic, the avenues taken worthy of investment, and the locale a gorgeous place to get lost for two hours. That the acting is top-notch (Krieps shines brightest, followed by Wasikowska and then the men) only adds to its power to draw us in and experience some of the uncertainty and incendiary fire that drives artists to create. Bergman, Hansen-Løve, Chris, Tony, Amy—they’re all creative minds wading through their own psyches for something of substance that can touch their audience’s souls. Fårö is merely a canvas. What gets born is theirs alone.
 Vicky Krieps as “Chris” and Tim Roth as “Tony” in Mia Hansen-Love’s BERGMAN ISLAND. Courtesy of IFC Films.
 Mia Wasikowska as “Amy” and Anders Danielsen Lie as “Joseph” in Mia Hansen-Love’s’ BERGMAN ISLAND. Courtesy of IFC Films.
 Vicky Krieps as ‘Chris’ and Tim Roth as “Tony” in Mia Hansen-Løve’s BERGMAN ISLAND. Courtesy of IFC Films.