Fårö sits just off Sweden’s mainland and is probably best known as the home of the late Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. The acclaimed auteur lived on the idyllic Baltic island from 1965 until his death in 2007. His affection for Fårö led him to make a total of six features there including “Through a Glass Darkly”, “Persona”, and “Shame”. It’s also where he shot “Scenes From a Marriage”, a television mini-series that was recently remade by HBO and starred Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.
Fårö practically has a mythology all its own and over the years it has become a popular tourist spot for Bergman faithfuls. The island is a key player in the new film fittingly titled “Bergman Island”. Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, this thoughtful yet scattered drama poses as a love letter to the cinema legend. But at its core, “Bergman Island” is much more interested in fractured relationships and the creative process. Its effort to fuse those two themes together is admirable, even if the results are a little mixed.
Hansen-Løve’s early focus is on Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), a filmmaking couple who travel to Fårö for a screenwriters conference. Tony is an established director who is comfortable with his achievements but not so much the attention that comes with it. Chris is less renowned and even less confident; successful but seemingly stuck under her husband’s shadow.
The program’s organizers put them up in one of Ingmar Bergman’s homey cottages that sits in a quiet grassy field next to a picturesque old windmill (at one point it’s noted that they’re actually staying in the same house where “Scenes From a Marriage” was filmed – yikes). Both are whittling away on new screenplays and create for themselves separate writing spaces to work in between nostalgic 35 mm film screenings, lectures, and Bergman bus tours.
Hansen-Løve moves Chris and Tony around with a delicate wistful rhythm, but getting a good grasp of their relationship is a challenge. Along the way we see tiny cracks in their marriage and the film hints at (though doesn’t explore) some even bigger issues. Yet Chris and Tony aren’t at each other’s throat and there’s no detectable bitterness or animosity between them. Still, it’s clear they’re missing a spark and have lost their passion. And their poorly veiled detachment echoes a certain longing, but for what?
There’s something equally fascinating and frustrating in trying to solve the puzzle that is Chris and Tony. Amid the sumptuous scenery and persistent Bergman name-checks, the couple’s relationship seems to be dissolving right before our eyes. We see it when Chris skips out of Tony’s lecture to do some flirty site-seeing with an incredibly dry Swedish film student (played with an almost jarring lethargy by Hampus Nordenson). We also see it in Tony’s cold reception to Chris’ attempt at intimacy.
But just as we’re getting a feel for the characters, this meta-drama jaunt suddenly shifts gears. Hansen-Løve’s focus moves to Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), two fictional characters from Chris’ screenplay. This ‘movie inside of a movie’ twist sees Tony vanish (never to return) and Chris taking more of a background storyteller role.
Hansen-Løve’s narrative twist might work if Amy and Joseph’s story had the same allure. Instead, this paper-thin romance about a young woman reconnecting with her first love at a mutual friend’s wedding lacks an emotional pull. It too is set on Fårö and it too has an undercurrent of longing. But it mainly features a lot of moping, gazing, and frolicking in various states of undress. And while it’s easy to see what Hansen-Løve is going for, there simply isn’t enough depth to make it interesting. Even it’s internal connections to Chris aren’t pronounced enough to leave an impression.
I was ultimately left wishing I was back with Chris and Tony. Their story, with all of its intricacies and imperfections, gave us something to look deeper into. It also gave us more Vicky Krieps. The Luxembourg born actress was magnetic in 2017’s “Phantom Thread” and she’s had a busy 2021. She was good in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Old” although it was mostly an ensemble film. And she had a small but effective role in the underseen John David Washington thriller “Beckett”. But here she reminds us of why she grabbed so much attention opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s gem. And once her screen time shrinks so does much of the movie’s appeal.
“Bergman’s Island” starts promising, pulling its audience in with its breezy and beguiling charms. But there comes a point where the movie steps away from its strengths and ends up in a place where it’s simply too crafty for its own good. And as it wanders farther and farther away from its appetizing setup, even Bergman (much like Chris and Tony) becomes nothing more than an afterthought.