For some creatives, there is power in visiting the place where the greats once worked their magic. The Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana, Cuba, where Ernest Hemingway overcame writer’s block to write For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, presents the author’s hotel room to travelers as he supposedly left it, with regular tours running daily. Mark Twain has roots in Missouri and Connecticut, and his homes in Hannibal and Hartford were both given the museum treatment after his death — meaning fans of the great American humorist have two potential pilgrimages from which to choose. Filmmaker Ingmar Bergman spent 20 years of his career shooting his projects on Fårö Island, the Swedish haven where he also lived. In Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, couple Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps) are the latest writer-directors to make the trip to Fårö and stay in Bergman’s house-turned-shooting location in hopes of being possessed by his creative spirit.
Overwhelmed by the sheer tranquility of the island upon arrival — it’s almost too beautiful, as Chris remarks to Tony as they soak it all in — they soon discover that Fårö is less writer’s retreat-y and more touristy. Practically every building serves as a monument to the deceased director, the desperate attempts to commodify everything coming just shy of memorializing one of Bergman’s used napkins. There’s even a bus tour, dubbed the “Bergman Safari,” that takes spectators around to see the locales where his long-demolished sets once stood. It may look like a plain old patch of grass now, but the guide insists that The Seventh Seal (1957) was shot right over there! (It’s the kind of hyper-specific gag that would make for a memorable throwaway on The Simpsons, but Hansen-Løve plays it totally straight.) Despite the kitschiness, Tony is still impressed by the splendor of all, but Chris can’t help but observe the irony of so many meddlesome distractions in a place where creativity is supposed to be cultivated.
Sneaking a glimpse at his notebook while he’s out seeing the sights, Chris suddenly understands why Tony can afford to roam around the island while she struggles to make any real progress: He’s nearly finished his screenplay, complete with illustrations between scenes and note-filled margins. She is frustrated with her partner’s ability to churn out hit after hit without having to fear how it will be received. (Following one of his film’s screenings on the island, Tony’s fans go so far as to say he convinced them to study filmmaking.) Chris distances herself from Tony’s usual sightseeing activities and begins to take in a different side of the island, one better known by the locals than the visitors. From there, a script idea of her own is born. As she explains it to Tony, the viewer is transported to her movie-within-the-movie, which tracks former lovers Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Daniel) as they reunite during a friend’s wedding on Fårö.
In look and feel, Bergman Island is about as far from an Ingmar Bergman film as can be. That’s not to suggest that the director’s presence doesn’t haunt the film, though — his soul is very much embedded into the very fabric of Bergman Island, with characters constantly praising him, mocking him, visiting one of his landmarks, or meditating on one of his films. Even scenes that aren’t overtly about Bergman are still, indirectly, about Bergman. Chris and Tony might not even mention the director’s name as they argue in the kitchen or make up in the bedroom, but they’re still doing these things in the house where Bergman lived, they’re still occupying the spaces where Bergman shot Scenes from a Marriage (1973). It’s an inundation of Bergman, but it’s through their responses to that inundation that the viewer begins to notice the ways that Chris and Tony differ — not just as people, but as creatives.
While Tony is the bigger fan, more willing than Chris to set aside issues of Bergman’s home life in favor of praising his filmic output wholeheartedly, her films are the ones that seem to share more in common with the revered auteur. Not so much aesthetically, as her film-within-the-film is not that far off visually from Bergman Island, but rather thematically. Tony feels inspired by Bergman, to be sure, but judging by what the viewer sees of his filmography — in a scene from one of his cheap-looking, fast-paced thrillers, a tormented young woman runs and screams from her attacker before plunging a knife into his gut — his work appears to lack the raw, soul-crushing universal truths about pain, suffering, and death for which Bergman is known. Chris’s film — like Bergman Island itself — crushes souls in a more meditative manner, using languid conversations to evoke tender emotions in a way that is far more in line with the Swedish filmmaker’s oeuvre than Tony’s manages.
Being such a layered film, it’s no surprise that Mia Hansen-Løve’s feature works on several different levels. Superficially, it’s a relationship drama, but beyond that, it’s a rumination on the nature of inspiration; a reflection on the catharsis that auto-fiction can bring for both filmmaker and audience; a skewering of film-obsessed goofballs who think that spouting trivia facts back and forth can serve as meaningful conversation; and an argument for interrogating one’s influences instead of simply echoing them. All of it works, and what’s more, all of it works in unison. One has to wonder who will be the filmmaker to respond to Hansen-Løve’s claims, some 60 years from now, with a feature called Bergman Island Island — an auto-fiction to the nth degree where filmmakers old and young come see the spot where Chris learned to stand on her own as a filmmaker, as a partner, and as a person.
Bergman Island opens in select local theaters on Oct. 15.