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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Bergman Island (2021)

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

Creativity ebbs and flows differently from person to person. For some people, it comes so easily. For others, like myself, it’s an agonizing ordeal as I try everything I can to find inspiration, effectively killing what should be a natural process. With Bergman Island, Mia Hansen-Løve’s newest feature, it feels to be her most personal film yet - giving us possible insight as to what she was going through at the time of writing it, as well as her own process in coming out on top - one that is reassuring for creatives who find themselves stuck in a rut. It's all just part of a tough, annoying process, even if you're a critically acclaimed, established filmmaker. Nobody is perfect.

Bergman Island follows Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), a filmmaking couple going on a creative retreat to the Faroe Islands, the place Bergman drew inspiration from and called home, in hopes of gaining the right motivation in finishing their latest screenplays.

Writer’s block is a regular premise for far too many terrible student films (mine included) that would often lead to aimless scripts and films with nothing much to say. And in their defense, it’s hard to crawl your way out from writer’s block as you desperately try to conjure some sort of idea that resembles half an idea. So the easiest solution in trying to hit the deadline set up by the school, as well as getting some sort of grade, is to do your short about writer's block. It's a shamelessly lazy way to get out of a tight spot. My terrible short film aside, we have seen some great films with plots focusing on or revolving around writer’s block over the years: Barton Fink, Adaptation, Wonder Boys, Synecdoche New York, The Shining, etc. Adaptation in particular is the finest example of how actual writer’s block can unfold as Kaufman wrote a half fictional, half factual, account of how he went about squeezing out an adaptation of a book he was hired to do. With the help of Spike Jonze’s direction, Adaptation was and is the most meta film about the process ever made. By placing Kaufman in his own story as well as everyone involved in the original process (including a fictional twin brother), he created the most accurate representation of the crippling anxieties and self-hatred writers feel when stuck in this dark, endless pit of creative despair. Although Bergman Island isn’t part-autobiographical like some of the events in Kaufman's Adaptation, it still feels deeply personal to Hansen-Løve, grounding us closer to reality than that of Kaufman's effectively sensationalized unfolding of events in his story, as Chris tries to draw influence from myth-like cinematic titans and their myth-like homes.

Ingmar Bergman is synonymous with films that tap into the deepest and darkest of human emotions. His films are often gloomy, nihilistic and straight-up depressing. But within the entirety of Bergman Island, Hansen-Løve allows for her own ideas and identity as a filmmaker to take center stage as Chris tries to make sense of her own ideas and how they could fit within her story and life's narrative. She doesn't allow for the looming shadow of Ingmar Bergman to overtake the ideas of the film as well as the intentions of its characters. By showing the island in a sunny, warm and quietly optimistic light, we subvert the ideas with which circumstance may affect one's art, regardless of how dark or light their work may be.

We mostly follow Chris’ perspective, as she is the one in need of the most inspiration while Tony is in a sweet spot within his career - finishing screenplays, prepping his next shoot and even participating in a screening and Q&A on the island for his latest film. It appears to be all so easy for him while Chris bashes her head against the wall, trying to make sense of all the endless notes and doodles she has in her books. She’s stuck in this purgatory of Bergman's island, desperately trying to find her feet and voice again. It’s interesting that Hansen-Løve chose the careers of these two characters to be within the same field as each other.

Like Kaufman's Adaptation, the twin brothers serve as a mirror to himself; what he feels he is (sad, anxious and desperately lonely) and what he desperately wants to be (successful, confident and happy). Hansen-Løve isn’t as hyper-critical and pessimistic about herself through these characters like Kaufman is, but Chris and Tony are characters I see myself in and where I wish I was - stuck in a creative limbo like Chris while alsp desiring the success and assurance that Tony has. Writing is hard, and as Chris puts it, "I can't just write. It's torture for me". Her lack of inspiration also isn’t helped when locals tell her of Bergman’s personal life. “I like a certain coherence. I don’t like it when artists I love don’t behave well in real life”.

But Bergman Island isn’t just a movie about writer’s block and the seemingly inescapable feeling of it, it’s a film about self-discovery first and foremost. Writer’s block sucks, but it also forces us to be introspective with ourselves as we look inward, trying to find what we want to, no, need to say and how we can go about doing so. What Hansen-Løve does so effectively with Bergman Island is that she puts Chris on sort of a solo adventure away from the presence of Tony, allowing for her to find inspiration and meaning on her own- something we all need to do in order for us to truly grow. Sometimes its better to deprive yourself of all distractions. She bumps into a film student as he shows her the different corners of the island that Bergman was a part of, away from the crowded tour busses. It’s all so sunny, beautiful and strangely optimistic. Is this really the place Bergman called home? It’s in these moments devoid of external and internal pressure that we see Chris start to actually enjoy her time there as ideas begin to blossom. "Write what you know", and in this case, it appears as though Chris, as well as Hansen-Løve, have done just that. Writer's block isn't interesting on its own, it's how you escaped it that is far more compelling. It feels as though we are seeing Hansen-Løve’s own "eureka!" moments as she finally overcomes her struggles. The film adds a film-within-a-film narrative that drives us in unexpected directions that not only works for its characters as they incorporate their lives within their own stories, but inspires us creatives to do the same.

Hansen-Løve places us on the Faro Islands in summer as opposed to the expected gloominess of winter, one that would purpetiouly live inside Bergman and our minds based entirely on a large bulk of his filmography. The cinematography isn’t highly stylized, instead, it showcases the natural prettiness of it all without exaggerating it. It’s a smart exercise in challenging both characters and our perception of a place we wouldn’t associate with the great man himself, considering his reputation for being overwhelmingly bleak.

Tim Roth is in one of his finest, most natural performances of recent years, but it’s Vicky Krieps that is the film’s deserved shining light. She wowed me in her film debut back in 2017 with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, going toe to toe with Daniel Day-Lewis. It was one of my top performances of that year and it was baffling how she was ignored for an Oscar nomination. So it’s wonderful seeing her back in the limelight in a film that deserves the talent of her calliber and vice versa. Roth and Krieps are so naturally attuned to one another and Hansen-Løve, making each scene and moment flow seamlessly as they appear to tap into the ideas and themes of Bergman Island that resonates with not only themselves and Hansen-Løve, but the audience as well.

Bergman Island is at its best when it takes Chris off the beaten path, allowing her to rediscover her voice and vision again. It's a wonderful exploration of creativity through all its successes and failures that is hard not to be charmed by.

Where you can watch it: Most VOD platforms (USA), In theatres 26 December (Australia), UK and SA release dates TBA

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