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Bergman Island – Reflections on an Artist

Right from the first scene in Bergman Island, it is apparent that this is a movie made with a very particular audience in mind. You can tell that it will never crossover into pop culture or even into the conversations of casual movie fans, like a lot of indies playing in the festival circuit, do. Instead, it is a movie made for the terribly small niche of cinephiles, fans of Ingmar Bergman in particular, and the artists who will relate to the subject matter of the film, as it questions the disparity between art and artists, and how the works of great artists like Ingmar Bergman affect those they inspire.

Two Filmmakers walk into an Island

Bergman Island tells the story of two American filmmakers, Tony and Chris (played by Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps respectively), who travel to Fårö, the island where Ingmar Bergman lived and shot six of his most well-known films, for the screening of Tony’s film as a part of the annual Bergman week. The couple takes this opportunity to spend some time on this beautiful remote island and work peacefully on their screenplays. They live in the house where Bergman shot Scenes of a Marriage, which the housekeeper cheekily calls “the film that made millions of couples divorce, so it feels like a recipe for disaster, but just like the couple themselves, the movie is barely interested in their relationship. The spark in their relationship is almost gone, you barely see them embrace each other and when they talk, they only talk about movies and their work. The movie is way more interested in the two filmmaker’s relationship to their art than their relationship with each other.

Tony, played with a nonchalant aura of intellectualism by Tim Roth, is the one with the more affluent career, having made successful films and with ardent fans, some of whom even consider him their “favourite filmmaker of all time.” He is able to draw inspiration from the island and progresses at a phenomenal speed with his screenplay, while Chris is barely able to write, all of which makes her a little jealous. At one point, she abandons Tony at his film’s screening and ditches their plan of doing the Bergman safari (yes, that’s a real thing), to roam around the island with a young and handsome film student. But Tony isn’t angry when he finds out the reason his partner stood him up, instead, he’s amused. Even though they share the same room from Scenes of marriage, their relationship is not as fraught as that couple – that spark in their relationship might not exist anymore, but they still clearly have love and respect for each other.

The Artist in question

Ingmar Bergman with his family

It’s impossible to talk about this movie without talking about Ingmar Bergman (his name is in the title, duh). While the movie itself doesn’t bode any resemblance to Bergman’s films or his style, his shadow looms throughout its entirety as a third character. We see how Ingmar Bergman has influenced all kinds of people at a personal level, something that couldn’t have been captured better in any othermedium. The island of Fårö is treated as a pilgrimage site for filmmakers and film fans alike, with shrines of the great filmmaker’s legacy, dispersed all around it. Bergman Island has the pretentiousness that comes with being a film about filmmakers, but it is also aware of its pretentiousness and gently pokes fun at it once in a while. On the Bergman safari, Tony is accompanied by celebrated film professors and critics who all have the pretence of knowing all about Bergman’s cinema. They engage in pretentious conversations that ring hollow, and Tony’s annoyance is apparent. “Just because he calls it a trilogy doesn’t mean it necessarily is one” one fellow remarks, which makes Tony shake his head in cringe and leave the party.

Tony’s relationship with Bergman is barely explored, perhaps because it is simple – he loves and respects his films, and like any honest man has his favourites from Bergman’s filmography, that doesn’t include The Seventh Seal. Chris’s feelings towards Bergman are much more complex and form the basis for the primary conflict in the first half of the film. She has not seen as many of Bergman’s films as Tony, but she respects the man and identifies him as a great artist, while simultaneously feeling a sense of disconnect from his art. “Why are all his characters such flawed people?” she asks and expresses how the subjects of Bergman’s films are often dire and depressing.

As she explores the island on her own and witnesses its beauty, she finds the landscapes from Bergman’s films distraught from the reality of the actual place. Even the local islanders don’t seem to be too fond of Ingmar Bergman, they either don’t understand why so many foreigners find his shrines amusing or are just annoyed by all the fuss around him. Chris is also bothered by revelations of Bergman’s personal life that she learns on the island. “Bergman made twenty of the world’s finest films by his forties, and that’s not counting his screenplays and plays he directed. You can’t produce such quality and volume of work if you have to change diapers of seven children.” someone tells her at a dinner conversation. The questionable parts of Bergman’s personal life make Chris go back to wondering why all the artists she respects for their art, she can’t respect them for who they were in real life. “I like a certain coherence. I don’t like it when artists I love don’t behave well in real life,” she says and questions whether it is impossible to be a great artist and at the same time have a balanced family life, as she can feel that question come back to her.

She’s left her daughter back in America to come here and focus on her art, but even so, she can’t write. She starts questioning if she can ever write a film that’s worth anything. As Tony continues to have breakthroughs with his script, she has barely written anything. After the couple watches Bergman’s Under Scanner darkly in 35 mm print together, Chris feels belittled as she thinks she can never make anything that matches up to that level of quality. This is the part of the film that I feel any artist can relate with – every artist goes through similar emotions while reflecting on the art of one of the greats. Chris is no different, instead of finding inspiration on Bergman island, everything around her has made her feel demotivated.

A Tale of forgotten love

Mia Wasikowska in Bergman Island

But then she changes her perspective and uses this sense of disconnect that has been bothering her to craft a new story. This is the part of the movie where the story takes a huge left turn and goes into a movie within a movie. I honestly love how bold the script of the movie is (written by Hansen-Løve herself); all of a sudden in the middle of the movie it introduces completely new characters and asks you to care for them, which is an incredibly hard thing to pull off. And the script does it masterfully, you can tell how the movie-within-the-movie is connected to the plot already established in the movie, so you also care and enjoy it in its own term.

This second narrative is told through the narrative device of Chris discussing her idea for a movie with Tony as they go for a walk. It is a sweet little romantic story about a heartbreak, coincidentally set on the island of Fårö, but as a film is a complete antithesis to the kind of cinema Bergman made. It is sad, but also light and breezy –  as if Chris is asking whether it’s necessary for great art to be always dark and gloomy. The cinematography changes to reflect this change as well. In the story Chris is narrating, the colours are more vibrant and it is all shot in beautiful wide shots. 

This movie-within-a-movie is clearly a reflection of Chris’s own and it becomes more evident as the plot progresses and you see Christ cast people from real life in her imagination. She weaves the story of Amy (Mia Wasikowska with the best turn in the film), a 28-year-old female director, admittedly based on herself, who visits the island with her long-forgotten teenage lover for a destination wedding. The two old flames rediscover their bond as they spend time together on the island and quite predictably, the lost feelings resurface. Chris’s lead character is unable to control her emotions, and just like her, she finds herself intrigued by her own conflicting opinion on Ingmar Bergman. But in this fictional tale, the focus is the romance and how the love these characters have for each other breaks them. They both cheat on their current partners and sleep with each other. But before Chris can tell about it to Tony, a phone call interrupts them and she doesn’t get to complete (perhaps a sign of how their work has come in between their sex lives), but we do get to see the scene of the characters making love in Chris’s mind’s eye.

When Tony returns from his phone call, Chris’s story takes a depressing turn. Amy is madly in love with this boy from her past again, but he goes cold towards her after they sleep together. He is ashamed of infidelity and actively ignores her for the rest of the trip, before leaving the island unannounced the next day, causing Amy to have a breakdown. 

Chris hasn’t figured what happens in the story after this yet, she considers suicide as an option, but she isn’t happy to end it in such an anti-climatic way, after actively trying to not make things too depressing. She asks Tony for suggestions, but Tony understandably says that it isn’t something for him to tell, the only way the story should end is the way Chris wants it to end. And thus, Chris feels cornered once again, she can’t find a resolution to her story, and by extension the things she’s dealing with in real life. 

Reflections from the Artist

Mia Hansen-Løve

Amidst this, Tony has to leave for America to attend a meeting with his producers, and Chris is left all alone on the island. In the finale of the film, she ventures out on a dirt bike in search of Ingmar Bergman’s house. Rousing music fills up the scene, in a movie that has practically had zero musical score up until this point, signifying that Chris is entering some sort of sacred ground. On arrival, she finds the door to Bergman’s house open, and as she enters the lonely house, the music gets louder and plays like a classical tune straight out of a gothic horror movie – completely out of place, just as Chris feels there. And just like seeing a ghost, she bumps into the handsome film student she met earlier. He shows her around Bergman’s house, which has been maintained like a holy temple for his devotees to see. Witnessing the place from where Bergman wrote all his movies, the chair he sat on to think, and the wall of books he read, suddenly made Chris see Bergman in a new light – just as another artist trying to do what they have to. The visit gives her a newfound clarity on her position as an artist, and in the last few scenes of the movie, we see this realisation play out. Though the movie has sort of an open ending, it closes itself thematically. We see Chris saying goodbye to the story in her head and her characters (and quite possibly work to a certain extent), while her husband returns from America with their daughter and the film ends with a frame of the mother and daughter embracing in a hug.

Mia Hansen-Løve’s film is, at the heart of it, about the relationship between art and artists, and so there are bound to be undeniable inspirations from her own life as a filmmaker. Her previous french language film, Eden is also about an artist, although a very different kind, trying to survive. What makes Mia’s artists on film unique is that she isn’t afraid to tell stories of artists who fall in the middle of the pack. They are not terrible artists, but we know they will never cross over into that other side of superstardom either. Yet, she never looks down upon these characters – they are passionate about their art and brilliant in their own right. When Chris feels that she’ll never produce anything as good as Ingmar Bergman, we know that she’s probably right, but still, we understand the pain it causes her. I hail from the city that’s been home to the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, and when you look up the kind of work these giants have left behind, you can’t help but feel small. But there’s beauty in that realisation –  art doesn’t exist as a competition, art is about the conversation. It’s not about doing something better than the greats who came before but adding to that ongoing conversation which once they contributed to. I visited the bungalow in Mongpo from where Rabindranath Tagore produced some of his most celebrated works once, and it is still one of the most inspiring and humbling experiences of my life. The lives of these great artists have been romanticised to death, along with all the places they inhabited, but once you get too close to the truth of it all, you see them as they were, like an actual human being and not a romanticised idea of a person. Bergman Island captures this beautiful disconnect between the artists and their art, and while it might not provide any answers, it makes sure to explore all the questions lying underneath.

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