As Chris and Tony make their way from mainland Sweden to the beautiful shores of Fårö Island, there’s an unmistakable sense the journey is transportive. Maybe it’s the general difficulty of the trip – traversing narrow roads, locating a port, parking on a boat, and floating casually to the island – but it’s hard to ignore the feeling that this couple is exiting one universe and entering another. In the loftiest sense, these two filmmakers are exiting the standard humdrum of grinding away at their latest screenplays and stepping into an environment that should spur their inspiration, a land of artistic freedom. But as they immerse themselves in the spaces once occupied by Ingmar Bergman, Chris and Tony are compelled by more than inspiration, but by a sort of enchanted energy that seems to have remained even 14 years after Bergman’s danse macabre.
Of course, Bergman himself would likely reject any notion of enchantment, but he did believe in ghosts. Perhaps his presence remains, influencing the energy that pervades the island he loved so much that he never left. That presence swirls throughout Bergman Island, spurring the momentary, fragmented whims on which the film hinges.
Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) are something of an odd couple, separated by age and perspective. Filmmaking is what links them, though there are even disparities on that front – he’s a venerated writer-director and she’s an upstart screenwriter struggling with her latest project. Their excursion to the eponymous island functions, in theory, as an artistic retreat, though the more practical purpose is for Tony to participate in a Q-and-A after screening his latest film. Chris can’t bear to sit through the whole thing – something about the inequity between the opportunities for and perception of male artists versus female artists simultaneously fascinates and confounds her.
The island environment offers nothing to counteract that inequity. Bergman is the central topic of conversation, and the tone is never less than worshipful, with locals and tourists alike endlessly commemorating the legendary director in reverent guided tours and gushing roundtable discussions. But Bergman was also a bleak and tortured cynic who filed through spouses and barely bothered to know his children. Chris struggles with separating the art from the artist, and for good reason: Bergman laid himself bare through his art – he frankly never intended there to be any sense of separation.
Wrestling with that inequity is a primary source Chris’ creative frustration, toiling away in the shadow of her more famous partner on an island affectionately nicknamed after a male director who is idolized in spite of his demonstrable personal flaws. Amid this environment she views as creatively oppressive, she struggles through a story idea she can’t quite put her finger on, a tale of stifled passion amid the otherwise convivial atmosphere on a picturesque island.
Sound familiar? Writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s intriguing gambit is to form a psychic link between Chris’ real-world experience and the narrative she’s crafting, about a young woman reigniting an affair with her on-again-off-again lover when they cross paths at a wedding on…Bergman Island. As Chris begins describing her story to Tony, the film shifts – or perhaps expands – into this movie-within-a-movie, with Mia Wasikowska as the young woman yearning for self-actualization and savoring a long-dormant passion in the interim. Krieps and Wasikowska are, in essence, two sides of the same coin, occupying similar psychic space…and eventually occupying similar physical space. Hansen-Løve’s screenplay doesn’t build to a crescendo so much as it casually blends into a beautiful synthesis, blurring the line between fiction and reality until we sense they exist on the same plane. Maybe the art and the artist truly can’t be separated after all.
As it slowly unfolds, and then folds into itself, blending its disparate pieces and characters into a lilting coalescence, Bergman Island casually reveals itself. Its images are meditative, studying these characters as they drift from moment to moment, emotion to emotion. It’s not precisely linear, instead moving with all the purpose and randomness of creative thought. Within the possibly enchanted, possibly haunted realm of Fårö Island, no one story or perspective is enough to dominate the ponderous ether. Nothing is an absolute, but everything is legitimate. Tony describes his latest project as exploring “the invisible things that circulate within a couple.” Chris explains her script idea as “the last episode in a story…not quite a full movie.” And as one drunken wedding guest criticizes Bergman: “there’s a world outside of your own asshole.”
Within Bergman Island, Hansen-Løve somehow actualizes all of those notions at the same time.