Tony and Chris are filmmakers who have withdrawn to the Baltic island of Faro for some time – the island where the famous Swedish director Ingmar Bergman shot all of his 1961 films from “Through a Glass Darkly”. Your goals are twofold. Tony, the better known and more established of the two, is there for a couple of meet-and-greets where some of his own films are shown and fans are looking for autographs and selfies with him. Chris, the aspiring filmmaker, hopes to encounter divine intervention – perhaps from the spirit of Bergman himself – as she tries to break writer’s block and finalize her latest script.
Although Tony and Chris obviously love each other (and have been for a while), they prefer to work independently. Tony prefers to write in the rented country house while Chris retreats to the interior of the nearby windmill. Tony writes feverishly, never at a loss for words or ink drawings of the staging of various scenes. Chris has a hard time getting ink to paper.
When the middle-aged couple is not writing, they enjoy the tourist attractions – almost all of which have something to do with Sweden’s most famous artist. Tourists ask each other about their knowledge of everything Bergman-related; and his films are often set in arthouses across the island. While Tony prefers the larger tourist crowds, Chris spends an afternoon with a young film student showing her some of the island’s lesser-known places. In a Hollywood production, Chris’s afternoon with the student might have ended romantically. It’s realism here and your day ends with nothing but a hug.
As Tony and Chris, British actor Tim Roth and Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps (“Phantom Thread”) are solid and believable, if not flashy. The original script by French director Mia Hansen-Love strolls happily, but a bit aimlessly, until Chris decides to share her latest script with Tony. Seeking his insight to bring her story to a close, she paraphrases her story for him while actors perform the story for us on the big screen. This “game within the game” structure can be tricky, but Hansen-Love seems to handle it effortlessly since we (at least initially) have no problem distinguishing between the two storylines.
Ironically, Chris’ script revolves around a young woman named Amy – an American filmmaker, no less – who comes to Faro Island to attend a close friend’s wedding. At the wedding, she meets again with an old flame named Joseph. While Amy still has feelings for Joseph, he seems unwilling to commit and comments on his girlfriend and other current lovers. Amy and Chris are played by Australian actress Mia Wasikowska and Norwegian actor Anders Danielsen Lie.
So far, nothing in Hansen-Love’s film has developed like anything Ingmar Bergman has ever directed. Nothing about mortality or belief; no open sexuality; no movie tricks; no fancy shading or overlaying characters’ faces. Aside from the location (either Hansen-Love’s film or Chris’), “Bergman Island” has as little to do with Bergman as almost any other – apart from the fact that Hansen-Love’s screenplay name includes every single Bergman classic except “Wild” drops strawberries. “
But then something happens – at first very discreetly, then more conspicuously. Some of the characters from Chris’ film appear in real life. Since the film-within-a-film is not shot any differently than the â€œrealâ€ scenes (in contrast to Bergman, who would at least have emphasized different colors in each story), the effect is initially confusing. It turns out that Amy is either Tony and Chris’ acquaintance or someone they met on the island. And there is even a character in Chris’ film who resembles the young film student who presented the hidden gems of Faro Island to Chris early on in “Bergman Island”.
As the stories begin to blur, Chris and Amy even begin to mirror each other. With the frequent discussion of promoting the “persona” of various characters as Bergman’s masterpiece (and I agree with them), it’s not far to see where Hansen-Love got her own inspiration from. If Bergman had directed â€œBergman Islandâ€ himself, I would have expected the faces of Krieps and Wasikowska to overlap, similar to those of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in â€œPersonaâ€. But here, too, Hansen Love does not make a Bergman-like film; she’s making a Bergman-inspired film. This is clearly her own film. It meanders at a deliberate pace, it soaks up the marine atmosphere and the end result is that we can make what we want out of it.
Many will feel that Bergman Island is going nowhere; that Hansen-Love has nothing to say; that her writer’s block is as pronounced as Chris’s. But for those who are at least intrigued, it practically requires a second consideration. There’s more going on here than you think. I believe that â€œBergman Islandâ€ does not reach the status of a â€œmasterpieceâ€ or â€œclassicâ€. But for a movie that barely features any action, it will reverberate for a while.