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Middleburg Film Festival Review: “Bergman Island” Intrigues, Despite Missed Connections

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 14th, 2021

Film poster: “Bergman Island”

Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Beautifully rendered and exquisitely cast, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island takes us to Fårö Island, just north of Gotland Island, both of which lie south of Stockholm, Sweden, in the Baltic Sea. We journey in the company of Chris (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) and Tony (Tim Roth, Luce), a filmmaker couple making a pilgrimage of sorts to the home of one of their favorite directors. That would be Ingmar Bergman, who lived and worked on Fårö, setting many of his movies there, starting with the 1961 Through a Glass Darkly. Tony is the older and more famous of the visiting duo, and has in fact been invited to present some of his best-known works. Both he and Chris hope to write while they are there, each finding a separate space on the property they have rented, which just happens to be the house used in the 1973 Scenes from a Marriage. As the woman showing them the place reminds them, that’s “the film that made millions of people around the world divorce.” Seems like heavy foreshadowing.

Except that’s not quite where we end up, though there are hints and inferences, twists and feints, all seeming to point in certain directions, yet never quite getting there. It’s an often-engaging odyssey, however, even as it frustrates narrative expectations without always offering something meaningful in return. Halfway through, we temporarily abandon the growing tension between Chris and Tony over the former’s writer’s block and the latter’s lack of helpfulness to plunge head-on into a screenplay-in-progress. There, we meet Chris’ protagonist, Amy (Mia Wasikowska, Judy & Punch), and her would-be lover, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie, The Night Eats the World), in a movie-within-the-movie that adds ever more layers to the intrigue. A final transition near the end throws in one more fanciful strand before we return, more or less, to where we started. Things have changed, but not really.

l-r: Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth in BERGMAN ISLAND ©IFC Films

As a meditation on the creative process, Bergman Island has its strong moments, the alternating realities colliding in intriguing ways. As an exploration of the frequent manner in which women’s desires are subsumed to that of men’s, the movie also delivers worthy insights. And yet the meandering structure, while never tedious, rarely coalesces into a story of great consequence. Perhaps that’s part of the central thesis, that much can happen even when not much seems to happen; as in Bergman’s œuvre, the interior voyage is where the treasures lie. Still, Hansen-Løve (Things to Come), while enchanted with her location (which is beautiful), can’t quite find a way to make it any more than a picture-postcard background. Despite the attempted allusions to the Swedish master’s own films, the relationship between form and function feels forced.

And yet, the movie proves consistently enjoyable, no matter the missed connections. Krieps and Roth make a fascinating pair, as do Wasikowska and Danielsen Lie. Incidental characters come and go, yet these four hold our focus, reality and imagination blending into an evocative cinematic stew. It may not be Bergmanesque, but Bergman Island delivers its own unique charms.

l-r: Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie in BERGMAN ISLAND ©IFC Films
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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