Early on in “Bergman Island,” a summer breeze meta-movie that premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday, one of director Mia Hansen-Løve’s two stand-ins in the film voices a kind of mission statement: Why must seriousness of intent be synonymous with severity in execution? When did Ingmar Bergman’s filmic voice become the catchall for deep?
The light and airy film then tries to answer those questions by offering an alternative vision — a self-reflexive Russian nesting doll-like mix of story in story in story, commenting on itself while throwing plenty of manna to the cinephile masses.
“Bergman Island” starts with married filmmakers Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) arriving on Fårö, the Swedish island where King Ingmar lived and worked. Both filmmakers are preparing new projects from different points in their careers. A full two decades older than his wife, Tony is an already established international reference; Chris, for her part, still struggles to balance her duties as filmmaker and mother.
If the film doesn’t claim the label of autobiography, it does work from the belief that viewers arrive with a certain amount of context. A director who has often mined her personal life — and those of her brother and parents — for material, Hansen-Løve herself spent many in years in a similar relationship with director Olivier Assayas. And if her latest film doesn’t require that knowledge, it does presuppose it.
In its early scenes, the film follows the couple as they try to light their creative sparks while eliding the fact their marriage has lost its romantic one. As they amble around the titular island, while staying at a writer’s retreat hosted in Bergman’s former house, they encounter a kitschy tourist trap that externalizes inner anxieties. Is this the best possible outcome for a creative career, seeing your house mined for the international dollar while your reputation whitewashed into secular sainthood?
Once Chris’ creativity takes off, the film opens a parallel track, depicting the movie she is writing in real-time. In this one, we follow Amy (Mia Wasikowska) — the film’s second director stand-in (of her, Chris says: “She’s like me… maybe a few years younger”) — and she heads to the same island to celebrate a friend’s marriage. There, she rekindles an old flame with Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), the one who got away. As this film within a film goes on, characters from the A-narrative make their way into the B.
Perhaps it’s a way for Hansen-Løve to show the way artists pick from their own lives, or maybe it’s a way to muddy the meta waters even more. That ambiguity does not always work to the benefit of a film that always teeters on the brink of self-indulgence, mind you. As the Cannes screening let out, some festivalgoers floated on a cloud of high-minded reference, delighted by this knowing trifle made for those in the know; others scratched their heads, wondering how far beyond this self-selecting bubble “Bergman Island” could travel.