Saturday 13 November 2021

Sydney Film Festival - Janice Tong's first Filmic Postcard - BERGMAN ISLAND (Mia Hansen-Løve, France, 2021)

Vicky Krieps as Chris (left) and Tim Roth as Tony (right)
discussing which Bergman film they should view that
evening in the private 35mm screening room

The creative process is often joyless. It is in fact a solitary joylessness.

It’s also easy to confuse productivity or the flow that one finds in ‘doing work’ with the process of writing or scripting. The two are not the same. In fact, one can produce a huge body of work without any artistry.


I remember reading a Joan Chen interview years ago, where she had said that “a happy home is the enemy to art”. I am paraphrasing here, but you get the gist. 


Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island  seeps under your skin, and envelopes you with a kind of malaise borne of sadness. And unlike her earlier works All is Forgiven (2007) or The Father of My Children (2009), two films where I found her fragility and sensitivity as a storyteller and director to possess the lightest touch, that even with a difficult and tragic storyline, something magical and radiant comes out in the films. And again, later with Eden (2014), her magical touch is all the more pronounced, there’s a subtlety to the way she layers her narrative and intersects complex relationships. 

Chris (Vicki Krieps) solitary  self-discovery or invention?


I found Bergman Island to be none of these things. There was something more stoic and passive, but also confident in this film. Perhaps part of the confidence came from the way Tim Roth’s character Tony, a famous director Anthony Sanders, spoke and acted; that he was productive (he’s always talking, projecting himself), in the way he drove his car (that he didn’t slow down even when he arrived at the destination), in the general way that he handled himself (with his lover, with colleagues he’s trying to impress, with his fans). He is the epitome of Deleuze’s ‘action-image’, a man on the move, seemingly propelling the story forwards. The films he makes are also centered on ‘strong’ female leads in ‘action’.   His post-film screening discussion was cut short by his partner’s exit from the stadium. A closing of the door took us in a more rhizomatic direction; we get to follow her, instead.


We are led into another perspective, his partner’s. Chris is sensitively played by Vicky Krieps (I only saw her in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread years ago but have not forgotten her on-screen presence). She is more subtle in her confidence, she is outspoken, independent, and deeply thoughtful. Her ‘inaction’ (in the sense that she finds it difficult to progress her script) in fact outweighs and artistically surpasses the momentum that Tony seem to exude. Her story is one that bifurcates, in a film within a film; about a young writer/director, Amy, (played by Mia Wasikowska, who was actually here at the SFF screening on Sunday night) who also heads out to Fårö Island (like Chris and Tony), but for her, it is to attend a wedding of her friend. 

Anders Danielsen Lie as Joseph,
Mia Wasikowska as Amy, ex-lovers –
Is it possible to truly get over your great love?

On the way there, she meets up, quite by chance, her ex-lover Joseph, (played by the wonderful Anders Danielsen Lie. (I saw him last in the brilliant film Oslo, 31st August (2011); or you may know him from the recent television series Seizure which is currently available on SBS on Demand) Amy has not been able to get over him. No spoilers here, but there is a lot of unresolved tension that needs to play out between the two friends.


Chris and Tony have travelled to Fårö Island to take on a writer’s residence. It is an island situated in the north east of Gotland, and it's where Ingmar Bergman lived and worked for many years. He made some of his most famous films there: Persona (1966), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and the actual house Chris and Tony were staying in was where Scenes from a Marriage (1973) was shot, not to mention the bed they stayed in. Some of the scenes, such as the front-on shot of the bed with Tony holding a book reading, made me, as well as Chris, giggle in delight. But that was at the start of the film.

Scenes from a Marriage, the formidable Liv Ullmann as
Marianne and Erland Josephson as Johan


There were a lot of pressure-points that Hansen-Løve toyed with; by placing her audience in a mirror-maze, she creates a kind of fluid ambiguity that blends fiction and real life, reinterpretation and impulse, critique and factual. I would bet that audiences would be asking themselves these questions right the way through the film. Is this a reflection of the director’s own personal story that we see in Chris - being overshadowed by her partner who is a more prolific director, like that of her relationship with Assayas, or is Amy actually Chris’ double? Or, is it in fact that everyone involved in this film, are in fact in the shadow of (and yet continually and alternately inspired and haunted by) the ghost of yet another more luminous director, that of Ingmar Bergman

From left - Director Ingmar Bergman, cinematographer
Sven Nykvist, ASC and actors Erland Josephson and
Liv Ullmann on Fårö in the 1960s.
(Photo by Allen Watkin from London, UK, via Wikipedia Commons)


After all, this is Bergman’s island so to speak, and I guess, also Wallander country (in many of the scenes, I can’t help but see Kurt there with his dog Jussi). One can only take so much of the sea and sky, the landscape and it’s climes. They demand a slowness. This, coupled with the austere interiors come together to drive a kind of conformity that presses against those who go there. And those like Chris and Tony who supposedly went to be creative, or, at least, to embrace the quietness; I would say an opposite effect came to bear, “it’s oppressive” noted Chris; and to me, it is stifling, like the ticking clock and it drives in despair instead. But something did happen, something ‘clicked’, Chris found her own ‘safari’ into her creativity and narrative of and at Fårö Island. The idea of getting lost here is perhaps the best means of arrival.


To compartmentalise an interiority requires both solitude and validation. For Tony, his validation came from the effusive praise of his admiring public and festival organisers. For Chris, by sharing her story with Tony, the horizon was painted in the process. For her, she was unable to like a director’s films if they do not “behave” in their personal life. And this, I guess was the unspoken chasm that splits them; and in doing so, also open up the question of whether it is possible to separate the artist from the person? (How do you separate Heidegger from his allegiances?) 


Without diving into this debate here, there were also many moments where you could still find a glimpse of Hansen-Løve’s magical touch: when Amy wakes as Chris, or when Chris visits Bergman’s house and finds her friend there instead, listening to music; or our fateful rendezvous with Ingmar Bergman Jnr at the crossing. And for those moments, I am content.


The Sydney Film Festival finishes today on the 14th November.



#sff #sydneyfilmfestival2021 #sydneyfilmfestival #frenchfilms

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