Anyone versed in the emotionally intelligent, endlessly intuitive but entirely ungory work of French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve might be surprised to learn that her first English-language drama features a scene straight out of a slasher movie. A stalker pursues a young woman through a derelict space until the tables turn and the assailant finds himself stabbed in the guts. As well as an intriguing glimpse of what a Hansen-Løve Halloween movie might look like, it’s one of many playful moments in a relationship drama that uses the former island home of great Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman as a meta backdrop from a deep dive into the vagaries of the human heart and a woman’s quest for creative freedom.
That stalking scene, it transpires, is a clip from the latest movie by Tony Sanders (Tim Roth). He’s a filmmaker who holes up each summer on the remote Swedish island of Fårö to write a script, while his screenwriter wife Chris (Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps) does the same and their daughter is back with the in-laws. Tony has been invited to screen his new film and hold a Q&A in the Bergman Center, and the starstruck fans and aspiring filmmakers who wait for selfies afterwards clue us into his status as an established figure in the movie world.
It’s Chris, though, who is the film’s heart and her efforts to grind out an outline for her new screenplay – an autobiographical story of a 28-year-old filmmaker working through the end of a passionate young love – are the struggles we’re invested in. That fictional couple, Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (The Worst Person in the World’s Anders Danielsen Lie), eventually come to life later in the movie in a meta film-with-a-film called ‘The White Dress’ as her vision finally bursts into life.
Hansen-Løve has a real genius for amplifying small moments in relationships, and she finds deft collaborators in Krieps and Roth – as well as Wasikowska and Lie. Her film takes obvious cues from Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, a more apocalyptic view of a relationship in slow freefall (‘The film that made millions of people divorce’, dryly jokes a local), but not slavishly so. While Bergman fans will get a major kick out of Bergman Island, prior knowledge of, say, Through a Glass Darkly and The Serpent’s Egg is in no way essential.
The couple’s bond is sketched via wordless exchanges, subtle shifts in body language and good-natured disagreements about the Swedish auteur’s work (she’s bruised by his emotional austerity; he loves the obscures ones and refuses to watch The Seventh Seal again, even though she hasn’t seen it). They’re comfortable but maybe passionless (there’s more than a hint of sexual frustration from her side), and the dynamic has become skewed to his advantage, but they’re still tender and supportive of one another. Any couple that can emerge from a screening of Cries and Whispers still holding hands can’t be doing too badly, though there’s a sense that while his needs are being met, hers aren’t.
Prior knowledge of Through a Glass Darkly and The Serpent’s Egg is in no way essential
The character of Chris feels like a clear surrogate for Hansen-Løve herself (the filmmaker has a child with fellow French director Olivier Assayas). And although the story isn’t autobiographical, there’s a tang of lived experience here – of very personal feelings and important questions being channelled through these characters – that keeps its sunlit landscapes and island interactions grounded with relatability. ‘All this beauty is oppressive,’ notes Chris – and at times, you can feel what she means. Krieps’ gentle energy works hard to mask the tumult below the surface as Chris slips away from Tony to explore Bergman’s old haunts both alone and with a film student who has local knowledge to share.
But as well as Tony and that young love she can’t quite leave behind, Chris’s other key relationship in the film is with Bergman himself. As she toils with the challenge of being a parent and a prolific artist, she notes that no one bats an eyelid at the fact that Bergman had nine children by six women and barely changed a nappy for any of them. Yet when Chris makes a joke that her fantasy is to have children with two men, an awkward silence falls. The Bergmansplain-y answer she gets for the director’s shortcomings – ‘Bergman was as cruel in his art as he was in his life’ – is a reminder that the failings of male artists are lazily waved away as the price to be paid for their art. It’s an idea Hansen-Løve clearly has no time for: Women are not forgiven for being cruel in either life or their work – yet here’s a man who gets a pass on both. There’s no cruelty in Bergman Island but like that slasher flick, it’s still a film with a sharp point.
Out in the UK Jun 3.