The Writing Plot: Life as Art in BERGMAN ISLAND

Image for this story

Mia Hansen-Løve and Vicky Krieps limn out a woman's life through the everyday rhythms of her creative process.

By Rafaela Bassili

Mia Hansen-Løve's Bergman Island is now playing in theaters in the United Kingdom, where it will also begin showing exclusively on MUBI starting July 22, 2022.

On this island, the silence has texture, a particular personality. A couple, Chris and Tony (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth), newly arrived in Sweden, drive in silence through small, sand-dusted streets, interrupted only by the funny way the English-speaking GPS names the roads. In the quietness of the landscape, there is the sound of tires on gravel and of footsteps in a new, borrowed home; implausibly and beautifully, there is the sound of the wind, rustling leaves, trees, and sand dunes, animating the island of Fårö. Later, as the couple works in separate environments, there is the sound of fingers on the keyboard; of ink on paper; of pages being turned. My favorite of these little moments, as poignant when experienced in the movie theater as at home through a less-than-ideal sound system: Chris screwing and unscrewing fountain pen caps, rifling through her pencil case in search of ink.

Since her 2007 debut All is Forgiven, writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve has been working towards a sensibility that honors the small, quotidian experiences that make a life: walking, eating, talking, lingering on a street corner or at a breakfast table; and now, with Bergman Island, working, often in silence and alone. One of Hansen-Løve's distinctive tendencies as a filmmaker is the patience with which she attends to these moments: how long we linger with the characters on those corners and tables; how the camera stays with those fountain pen caps as much as it does with Chris or Tony. The couple has come to Fårö to work on their respective film scripts; Tony, a renowned filmmaker, is also a guest to a series of lectures, panels, and dinners. The ghost of Ingmar Bergman, who lived and worked on the island for many years, and with whose work Chris and Tony have differing relationships, haunts their efforts. Chris is bothered by the intensity of his darkness: "Why didn't he ever once want to explore happiness?" she asks Tony, who is more willing to accept the filmmaker's morbidity at face value.

The natural beauty of the island, and its cultural resonance as a setting for artistic endeavors of the highest level, is for Chris a compounding spectral force. "Don't you think it's too nice," she asks Tony, "too beautiful?" She continues, "I find it oppressive. How can I not feel like a loser?" Tony reminds her that "no one's expecting Persona," but the high stakes of producing work—any work, let alone work that could do justice to the island's legacy—are more consciously acknowledged in Chris's process than Tony's. For him, writing seems to be easy, not the "torture" it is to Chris. Their dynamic is stained by this difference; the internal frustration of writing emerges as a point of combat between the two. Attempting to express her frustration to Tony one day, and hoping to have it solaced, Chris ends up going to sleep crying and with her back turned to him. They're in the same bed in which Marianne and Johan once read and fought in Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (1973)Marianne and Johan's troubles had a different tenor, though fundamentally both couples share a problem common to most romantic arrangements: the impossibility of grasping with anything like fullness another person's mind. This is thrown into relief in a couple of artists, whose work develops in parallel; whose work, moreover, is a product of the mind, an inner life translated and filtered through the prism of fiction.

Silently crying in bed, Chris's frustration is as private an experience as you can possibly have while sleeping next to someone else. The moment is an articulation of Hansen-Løve's attention to the kind of poignant moment, however small—when Chris and Tony wake up in the morning, they are reconciled—that builds to a life, alone or together. It's through this focus that she is able to make out of moving images a narrative about a woman's inner life. Chris's thoughts are conflicting: she loves Bergman, though he "hurt[s her];" she loves Tony, though she is often disappointed by him; Fårö itself is both beautiful and oppressive. In the midst of this insoluble internal conflict—aren't we all always conflicted about love, work, and Bergman?—she sets out to write a movie. And it's in the story that she tells about herself that these clashing feelings come up for air.

Continue reading here.