The main plot revolves around two American filmmakers, the seasoned writer-director Tony (Tim Roth) and his younger and less experienced wife Chris (Vicky Krieps). The couple has taken a residency on the remote Swedish island of Faro, where Ingmar Bergman lived and made some of his most celebrated films. Tony and Chris hope to jump-start the creative process with some quiet time at the house where Bergman made such films as “Scenes from a Marriage,” which a guide cheerfully refers to as, “the film that made millions of people divorce.”
In such a symbolically loaded retreat, Tony and Chris seem like they could be headed that way as well, and at first, Chris isn’t happy there: “All this calm and perfection,” she says. “I find it oppressive.” With this beautiful land’s artistic history come expectations and pressures: “Writing here, how can I not feel that I’m a loser?,” Chris muses. When she peeks at Tony’s notebooks, she sees that he’s making a lot of progress — and also making a lot of doodles of women in bondage, for some reason. Chris, for her part, has trouble even keeping enough ink in her fountain pen.
In the film’s portrayal of the creative process, it might be natural to wonder whether the director has doubts about her own art. But as she proved most recently with 2016’s “Things to Come,” Hansen-Love is completely in control of her gift, capturing the honest drama of life and relationships with a hungry, fresh eye.
And a playful one.
While the first half of “Bergman Island” is a relatively conventional Swedish-inspired drama, Hansen-Love turns the tables midway through: As Chris describes the idea she’s now developing in earnest, the action turns to a representation of the film playing out in Chris’s head. This film-within-a-film also takes place on Faro, and focuses on Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), a couple whose romantic complications echo what Chris is going through on the island.
Chris’s meta-tale broadens the scope of the drama with a story that breaks free of the titular island’s influence; Hansen-Love even uses an Abba song in a party scene, something one imagines would have driven Bergman crazy. In this way, Chris finds inspiration after all, taking stock of Bergman’s fabled stomping grounds and giving them her own voice. Maybe, as “Bergman Island” suggests, Bergman’s “Persona” and Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All” aren’t opposing perceptions after all, but part of a unified whole: a more fully rounded picture of Sweden, and of the human experience,
“Bergman Island” is a compelling, enchanting film that works both as a relationship drama and as a conversation between one generation of directors and another. It’s almost as though Mia Hansen-Love were teaching Ingmar Bergman how to get down.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the AFI Silver. Contains some sexuality, nudity and strong language. 112 minutes.