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The Writing Plot: Life as Art in "Bergman Island"

Mia Hansen-Løve and Vicky Krieps limn out a woman's life through the everyday rhythms of her creative process.
Rafaela Bassili
Mia Hansen-Løve's Bergman Island is now playing in theaters in the United Kingdom, where it will also begin showing exclusively on MUBI starting July 22, 2022.
Bergman Island (2021).
On this island, the silence has texture, a particular personality. A couple, Chris and Tony (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth), newly arrived in Sweden, drive in silence through small, sand-dusted streets, interrupted only by the funny way the English-speaking GPS names the roads. In the quietness of the landscape, there is the sound of tires on gravel and of footsteps in a new, borrowed home; implausibly and beautifully, there is the sound of the wind, rustling leaves, trees, and sand dunes, animating the island of Fårö. Later, as the couple works in separate environments, there is the sound of fingers on the keyboard; of ink on paper; of pages being turned. My favorite of these little moments, as poignant when experienced in the movie theater as at home through a less-than-ideal sound system: Chris screwing and unscrewing fountain pen caps, rifling through her pencil case in search of ink.
Since her 2007 debut All is Forgiven, writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve has been working towards a sensibility that honors the small, quotidian experiences that make a life: walking, eating, talking, lingering on a street corner or at a breakfast table; and now, with Bergman Island, working, often in silence and alone. One of Hansen-Løve's distinctive tendencies as a filmmaker is the patience with which she attends to these moments: how long we linger with the characters on those corners and tables; how the camera stays with those fountain pen caps as much as it does with Chris or Tony. The couple has come to Fårö to work on their respective film scripts; Tony, a renowned filmmaker, is also a guest to a series of lectures, panels, and dinners. The ghost of Ingmar Bergman, who lived and worked on the island for many years, and with whose work Chris and Tony have differing relationships, haunts their efforts. Chris is bothered by the intensity of his darkness: "Why didn't he ever once want to explore happiness?" she asks Tony, who is more willing to accept the filmmaker's morbidity at face value.
The natural beauty of the island, and its cultural resonance as a setting for artistic endeavors of the highest level, is for Chris a compounding spectral force. "Don't you think it's too nice," she asks Tony, "too beautiful?" She continues, "I find it oppressive. How can I not feel like a loser?" Tony reminds her that "no one's expecting Persona," but the high stakes of producing work—any work, let alone work that could do justice to the island's legacy—are more consciously acknowledged in Chris's process than Tony's. For him, writing seems to be easy, not the "torture" it is to Chris. Their dynamic is stained by this difference; the internal frustration of writing emerges as a point of combat between the two. Attempting to express her frustration to Tony one day, and hoping to have it solaced, Chris ends up going to sleep crying and with her back turned to him. They're in the same bed in which Marianne and Johan once read and fought in Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (1973). Marianne and Johan's troubles had a different tenor, though fundamentally both couples share a problem common to most romantic arrangements: the impossibility of grasping with anything like fullness another person's mind. This is thrown into relief in a couple of artists, whose work develops in parallel; whose work, moreover, is a product of the mind, an inner life translated and filtered through the prism of fiction.
Silently crying in bed, Chris's frustration is as private an experience as you can possibly have while sleeping next to someone else. The moment is an articulation of Hansen-Løve's attention to the kind of poignant moment, however small—when Chris and Tony wake up in the morning, they are reconciled—that builds to a life, alone or together. It's through this focus that she is able to make out of moving images a narrative about a woman's inner life. Chris's thoughts are conflicting: she loves Bergman, though he "hurt[s her];" she loves Tony, though she is often disappointed by him; Fårö itself is both beautiful and oppressive. In the midst of this insoluble internal conflict—aren't we all always conflicted about love, work, and Bergman?—she sets out to write a movie. And it's in the story that she tells about herself that these clashing feelings come up for air.
Vicky Krieps rises masterfully to the challenge of playing a character whose obstacles are internal. Following in Hansen-Løve's ethos of quietness, Chris's ambition is discrete and subdued, though not any less urgent than Tony's. Throughout the film, she is puzzling out her narrative: as a woman, a wife, and a mother, and above all else, as a writer. It'd be easy, here, to resort to the idea that this process amounts to Chris's journey to "find herself as an artist," that ubiquitous idea that suggests you can somehow mythically arrive at a finished stage of artistic development. It also suggests that before this arrival, the previous efforts would have failed to grant you the status of artist. Indeed, "[the insistence] that the work discover and pursue [the woman], like the conventional romantic lover" is an insidious reading of the role work plays in a woman's biography, as Carolyn G. Heilbrun reminds us in her book Writing a Woman's Life (1988). She goes on to propose the idea that for women, "vocation" is alluded to being found almost upon happenstance, rather than through a concerted effort to realize a vision; as if the work was a byproduct and not the point. Jackson Pollock had gone through many canvases, both resonant and not—praised and dismissed by his critics for their audacity—before he first slung paint at a blank one. When he finally did, he'd found a new method, not proof of his credibility as an artist: he'd "cracked it wide open," as Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) marvels in the 2000 biopic Pollock, "it" meaning the process. His very reality as an artist had already been established, if because of nothing else then because of the temerity with which he returned to the canvas. So, to offer a revision of the sentiment: Chris embarks on a journey to find her method.
For Chris, the arduousness of her process is plentiful proof that the woman has already found herself an artist in pursuit of her work; otherwise, who would withstand such torture, as Chris puts it? Heilbrun writes that "safety and closure…have always been held out to women as the ideals of female destiny." The idea that there could be such a final, enclosed stage of being an artist—that it could be arrived at as the credits roll up, instead of forever evolving and changing—is an expression of that fake destiny. Bergman Island, rather than being a film about a woman finding herself as an artist, is about an artist whose serious, deliberate process sets out to tell the story of a woman's life. And so, the challenge is: How to tell the story of Chris? And how can Chris tell the story of Amy, the protagonist of her own film?
Bergman Island (2021).
Waking up after that fight in the Scenes from a Marriage suite, Chris and Tony walk. She asks if she can tell him about what she's been working on, and her narration conjures the world of the story. Amy (Mia Wasikowska) is reconnecting with her first love, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), at a friend's wedding in Fårö. Like Chris, she's a filmmaker, and she's made a movie about this before: "I'm not a prick," Joseph tells her defensively after seeing himself represented on-screen. "I thought I'd idealized you," she replies, reminding us of the gap between reality and fiction. The clearest indication we get that Amy serves as an avatar for Chris comes toward the end of this section, when Amy cries over Joseph's departure in the same outfit Chris wears while biking over to Bergman's house. As a character, Amy is a touchier, more temperamental version of Chris—she shares none of Chris's lightness of spirit, instead being quick to leave, to wallow. Importantly, Amy's narrative centers around Joseph and his attention: a parallel investigation into the feelings that, in the script of Chris's life, are observed with just slightly more than a passing interest, insofar as they reflect back to her the audacity of her own artistic pursuit.
The problem of marriage, if we may call it that, is of significant interest to Bergman Island, but not because it is the driving force of its story. Any couple of filmmakers working on the island on which Bergman—by all indications, not the easiest lover—shot Marianne and Johan having the fight of the century is bound to come to some kind of reckoning of their dynamics. (The series’ pivotal argument was so deeply felt that it is rumored, as the groundskeeper of his cottage tells Chris and Tony, that "it caused millions of people to divorce.") Still, the emotional depths of their intimacy—or lack thereof—form the background against which Chris is writing her narrative. Her marriage is a fact, but not the central fact; it is marginal to her work in a way that, Heilbrun reminds us, women's ambition usually is. As a character, Tony takes on broad outlines: he's a nice enough guy, at turns lovable and annoying in the way that any guy is, and it's the lack of specificity to his character that highlights Chris' protagonism in this story. If anything, it is his natural acceptance of a counterintuitively warm and respectful separation—Chris working in the windmill while he works in the house; his refusal to pick a fight when she spends a freewheeling afternoon with a Swedish graduate student in lieu of joining him for the corny Bergman safari—that makes him most endearing.
Then again, the line between the importance of creative partnership for the film and its insignificance isn't all that clear-cut. The "invisible things that circulate within a couple," the focus of Tony's own project—illustrated in his notebooks with a boldness opposite the subtle tenderness that moves Chris—become tangible in the couple’s dynamic. The camera holds fast as she waves to him from her window in the mill, or among the tall grass blades in front of their cottage; it considers Chris often in profile, Tony more usually straight-on. While Tony talks fast and gesticulates often, Chris mostly walks with a lightness that belies her seriousness. Tony hunches forward into movement; Chris sleeps, lies down, is always leaning. The invisible things, here, become part of an intangible but deeply felt difference in disposition.
An unambiguous woman, Heilbrun writes, is one who "[puts] a man at the center of one's life and [allows] to occur only what honors his prime position." Sure enough, it's a "blanket assurance," as Katha Pollitt points out in her introduction to the 2008 edition of the book. On the other hand, an "ambiguous woman" in Heilbrun's reading is one whose story revolves not around the man, but around "the choices and pain" that come with the decision to center oneself. Following these definitions, Bergman Island tells the story of both an ambiguous woman and an unambiguous one. Amy's story revolves around Joseph, but Chris's story revolves only around herself. Standing over them is, of course, Hansen-Løve's own ambiguity, which simultaneously circles Fårö's gravitational pull as an ideal movie setting and her contention with the central man it implies. The same haunted landscapes that take on an ironic, distant meaning during the Bergman safari assume inviting depths for Chris and her continuous search for a place that makes sense for her art. Through Chris, Hansen-Løve centers herself, not Bergman, and not without a benevolent kind of melancholy. It's the fact that these women nest like Russian dolls within each other that makes the film so rich: the most ambiguous woman, after all, is the one who can hold several truths about her life at the same time.
Though Chris's writing process is painful to her, what she finally comes up with has an elegant simplicity: sometimes we, women, holders of several truths, can't have everything we want, as hard as we want it. Maybe what we want is our first love back, though he is married, and we're married, too; maybe what we want is for our writing to come easy; what we want, perhaps, is a Bergman who can be as sweet as he can be cutting. Perhaps this is what it takes for a woman to be an artist, after all: to stride confidently in that path of development that is not over as long as we can find ink for the fountain pen, and to realize that though we can't have everything we want, we're in our right to want it. Heilbrun, one last time: "It is hard to suppose women can mean or want what we have always been assured they could not possibly mean or want." Hansen-Løve's triumph, with Bergman Island, is to make that supposition not only credible, but deeply felt, beyond the shadow of a doubt, beyond the shadow of a husband and even, finally, yes, beyond the shadow of our dear Ingmar Bergman. Her triumph, in short, is to mean what she means, and want what she wants.

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