Making art requires wrestling with ghosts. They’re inescapable. Specters of the artist’s heroes loom invisibly from some great beyond, peering at the scribbles or dances or paintings. Traces of every person who’s ever praised or criticized the artist’s talent, no matter how qualified — an aunt, a gallery director, a high school theater critic — linger in the air, whispering. Only very confident, very arrogant, or very foolish artists entirely tune them out.
Ingmar Bergman, the revered Swedish filmmaker, believed in ghosts more than anything. Or so Chris and Tony (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) are told when visiting his home on Fårö Island, off the Swedish coast. Outsiders associate the island so strongly with Bergman that Mia Hansen-Løve’s outstanding new film is simply named Bergman Island; Chris and Tony are its protagonists, a pair of filmmakers who travel there for some rest, recreation, creative work, and Bergman-tinged tourism.
They both love Bergman, and they love their daughter June, who’s staying with Chris’s mother while they’re away. The trip is occasioned, in part, by a masterclass that Tony — more commercially successful than Chris and a bit older than her — is giving at the Bergman Center, near Bergman’s home, where they’re staying. The woman who greets them at the house when they arrive shows them around and says, cheerily but ominously, that this is the house where Bergman shot his 1973 TV series Scenes from a Marriage, “the film that made millions of people divorce.” (The six-episode series was later cut into a nearly three-hour film.) The bed right upstairs, where they’re supposed to sleep, was the site of some of Bergman’s most devastating scenes in a chronicle of a collapsing relationship.
Chris, for obvious reasons, is skeptical that she can sleep in the bed. She can’t even work in the house, really. While Tony arranges his notebooks upstairs, she finds refuge in the windmill across the lawn, which has a tiny little room that will suit her as she tries to write her next film. She can look across and wave at Tony, doing the same at his desk.
It seems like Chris senses the ghosts that surround her, some more genial than others. (Let me be clear: Bergman Island is not a horror film, unless you want it to be.) She can feel the Scenes from a Marriage characters and various others from Bergman’s work, much of which he made on Fårö Island. She senses the spirit of Ingrid von Rosen, Bergman’s fifth and final wife, whose death spurred Bergman to resume an abandoned belief in the afterlife. And, of course, she works under the specter of Bergman himself, whose seat still remains reserved for him in the small cinema on his estate, and whose art is so revered that Chris finds herself tied up in knots trying to write. “No one expects Persona,” Tony tells her. “Thank goodness,” she replies.
You don’t actually have to love Ingmar Bergman, or even have seen a Bergman movie, to find Bergman Island terrific. Thoughtful, layered, deceptively light, it’s among Hansen-Løve’s best work. The movie is transparently not a tribute to the director or his era-defining work, an oeuvre that boasts Scenes from a Marriage (recently reimagined as an HBO series starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac), Persona, Cries and Whispers, and many more. Chris and Tony (and, it would seem, Hansen-Løve) love him, as do the cinephiles who flock to Fårö. But Hansen-Løve’s film is all her own.
Instead of trying to emulate or comment upon Bergman, Hansen-Løve is interested in all the ways the ghosts that Bergman felt haunt artists — and, to be honest, all of us — while we try to both make things and live our lives. On their first visit to the Bergman Center, Chris plies the curators over dinner with questions about Bergman’s personal life. Was he involved in the lives of his children? Was he happy? Was he a good person?
The answer is, in essence, not really — he treated parenting as an activity he need not be personally involved with, despite fathering nine children by six different women. Chris is dismayed. “I like a certain coherence,” she says. “I don’t like it when artists I love don’t behave well in real life.”
The idea of a coherence — of what occurs in your real life spilling over into your art, and vice versa — is at the center of Bergman Island. Chris struggles to write while Tony blithely sails along, churning out copious notes and then drafting a screenplay for a movie “about how invisible things circulate within a couple,” as he tells Chris. (Maybe the Scenes from a Marriage bedroom is affecting him after all.)
Those invisible things, whatever they are, seem to be circulating between them, too. Chris and Tony don’t really fight, and they’re friendly toward one another, but as the movie continues, the sense that their relationship has entered its winding-down period is unavoidable. Then, midway through, when Chris seems to finally nail down what’s going to happen in her new film, we’re asked to view their relationship through that new lens.
Bergman Island pivots to a film-within-a-film, Chris’s film, about a filmmaker named Amy (Mia Wasikowska) who has long been in love with her sweetheart from her teens, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie). Grown up now, both have partners, and Amy also has a daughter. They’ve tried and failed in the past to make their relationship work. But when they meet again for a mutual friend’s wedding on — where else? — Fårö Island, sparks once again fly. They burn. It’s painful. And Amy has to face the tough work of banishing the ghost of the life she and Joseph could have had together, lest it haunt her life inexorably.
How much of this story is Chris’s pure invention, and how much is remixed and drawn out of her own life, even subconsciously? Tony seems to sense that there’s more to Chris’s story than maybe even she knows, telling her, somewhat gruffly, that maybe he isn’t the person she should be telling about the movie. Chris seems taken aback — but perhaps she knows what he means.
In films like Goodbye First Love (2011) and Things to Come (2016), Hansen-Løve showcased her talent for inviting us into the psyche of her characters without ever making them too explicit or simple. She loves to lightly paint traces of the “invisible things,” inviting us to lean in and notice them. Her intimately personal art frequently functions as refractions of her own life. Now, in Bergman Island, she turns that eye on the mysterious, intuitive, and hard-to-describe work of making art. Chris’s story about Amy bears the marks of experiences we’ve just seen her have on Fårö Island, and other experiences we can only assume she’s had.
Meanwhile, Hansen-Løve winkingly acknowledges that she’s doing the same thing; it seems clear that at least some of this film is grappling with her own relationship with the older, celebrated filmmaker Olivier Assayas, which ended in 2017. The pair have a daughter. That Hansen-Løve has Chris write about a director named Amy, then cast an actress named Mia to play her — Mia being her own name, too — may just be happenstance, but it’s in keeping with the anagrammatical nature of Bergman Island. (Assayas and Hansen-Løve’s daughter Vicky, as it happens, also shares a name with Krieps, who plays Chris.)
So the ghost of a real-life relationship has inspired a fictional relationship, which in turn provides fodder for a relationship-within-a-relationship as Chris considers Amy’s future, and maybe her own. Bergman Island’s inversions and turns are a delight to untangle, but they’re driving at a point that Chris must grapple with: Experiences, emotions, and people from the artist’s life will always beg to be reborn in art, even when creation is painful. Bergman Island winds its way to a conclusion much less miserable than those in Bergman’s films, which suggests that this telescoping tale is actually one about Chris finding the freedom she needs to determine which ghosts to pay attention to, and how to live among them peacefully.
Because, Bergman Island suggests, ghosts won’t be disregarded. Our loves, our memories, the people we used to know and the people who’ve left us forever, the ones who scare us and the ones who delight us, will always be with us. Ignore them entirely and our art, and our lives, lack depth; pay them too much heed and we’ll get tied up in knots. The challenge we all face, every day, is figuring out how to live coherent lives in the midst of them.
Bergman Island opened in theaters on October 15.