Bergman Island sounds, on first acquaintance, like a theme-park attraction. Roll up, roll up! Let us speed you through the shed where Max von Sydow is weeping and then plunge you downwards until you come face to face with a priest struggling with his faith. Then you’ll twist hard left – hold on! – to encounter Liv Ullmann suffering from a series of nightmares in which God appears graceless and indifferent. Or is God dead? To be fair, I’d probably go on such a ride. It may be more exciting than this, and over more quickly. That’s possibly too harsh, but this film is certainly most self-regarding.
Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love, it is a meandering, literary, dreamy, inconclusive take on I’m-not-sure-what. It’s not wholly unbeguiling. You won’t wish you were dead like, say, God. But it is densely and tiringly meta. Hansen-Love wrote this while staying on Faro, the Swedish island where Bergman lived and worked and that’s where it is set. The main characters are a married American couple, Tony (Tim Roth, underused) and Chris (Vicky Krieps), who have come for a summer. He’s an established filmmaker, while she’s struggling to write a script (of course she is).
They are staying in one of Bergman’s houses (he owned four), which, as a local tells them cheerily, includes the bedroom ‘where he shot Scenes from a Marriage, the film that made millions of people divorce’. That’s not encouraging. We are, I think, meant to sympathise with her, especially as he’s rather in love with himself, but she tested my patience. The house comes with a stunning whitewashed old mill where she chooses to work, but it’s ‘too beautiful’ and ‘too perfect’ and it’s making her feel ‘oppressed’. She must be a nightmare on Tripadvisor.
Actually, the island is (in real life, as well as here) a sort of Bergman amusement park. There’s a Bergman museum, a Bergman cinema and a Bergman centre where you can buy sunglasses just like the ones he wore. There’s even a big-yellow-bus ‘Bergman Safari’ where there’s no Max von Sydow weeping in a shed but you can see the tree that was in Shame even if, as the tour conductor notes, ‘it’s bigger now’. The island’s visitors are Bergman fans and Bergman scholars, and Chris is sufficiently inspired to write a film that becomes the story within the story, starring Mia Wasikowska as Amy and Anders Danielsen Lie as Joseph. They are former lovers who have never managed to get their timing right and remeet on Faro to attend a wedding. On occasion, when we cut between the narratives, Chris and Amy are wearing the same clothes, so something is being said about Chris’s need for romantic fulfilment. But I couldn’t swear by it.
Is this an homage to Bergman? Or a takedown? It is far from clear. There is much reverence, with multiple gushing references to his films. But there are also moments when he’s reviled. Chris, for example, raises the matter of his personal life, and the fact that he was an absent father to the nine children he had by five women. Would he have created such a body of work ‘if he’d had to change diapers?’ Or there’s the fella at the wedding who says: ‘Fine, three critics thought he was amazing, but there’s a world outside your own asshole.’
More problematically, perhaps, matters referred to in passing are simply allowed to pass. Chris sneaks a look into Tony’s notebook at one point and you expect what she discovers to play out, but it never does, leaving you feeling somewhat cheated.
In short, it poses questions but never any answers. So we still don’t know if God is dead, alive, away on a spa break or just indifferent.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10