Mia Hansen-Love’s new yuppie romance Bergman Island breaks one of my few moviemaking rules: Never use a clip from a movie you cannot match or surpass. In Bergman Island, Hansen-Love includes a scene from Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 Cries and Whispers — a close-up where Ingrid Thulin howls in torment then is briefly comforted by Liv Ullmann’s caress, a sympathetic duet played out to the palpable strum of a Bach saraband for unaccompanied cello.
Nothing else in Bergman Island has comparable emotional or aesthetic weight. That Bergman clip makes Hansen-Love’s idle conceit shrivel into insignificance, as it should. Bergman Island is a movie that had no good reason to be made; it’s the latest example of the privileged-class art follies now flooding the festival circuit (its American premiere was at the recent 59th New York Film Festival) where programmers, publicists, and media lackeys reinforce their shared delusions — in this case, the artistic pretense that accompanies social decline.
Bergman Island isn’t good enough to be called art, but it’s just trivial enough to expose the fallacies of this cultural moment. Hansen-Love’s story is itself remote. There’s no sign that it was made during Europe’s immigration upheaval, specifically this period when the West is being fundamentally transformed. Instead, Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps portray Tony and Chris, a European filmmaking couple whose relationship unravels during a working vacation in Sweden. They’re on Faro, the formerly remote island where Bergman made his retreat and filmed several late masterpieces — most significantly the 1967 psychological puzzle Persona.
For Chris and Tony, Faro is a haunted locale where nothing good happens except that the two wanderers seem to play sexual and artistic games. They’re rivals for each other’s attention and careers. After taking part in several tours of Bergman locales, meeting other fans and listening to the patter of native docents (who don’t reveal much enthusiasm for the legacy of their national hero), the couple seems oddly uninspired. Hansen-Love treats Faro like an adult theme park — BergmanLand. It affects their intimacy like saltpeter; and Chris, Hansen-Love’s surrogate, suffers a creative block.
Perhaps the significance of Chris and Tony’s cultural retreat is that they’re not serious enough to make a pilgrimage to the place of Bergman’s creativity; they’re escaping into their own form of highbrow navel-gazing. Culture-vulture Lives Matter.
Hansen-Love childishly apes themes from Bergman’s remarkable marriage films, imitating the dynamics of male-female relations in Winter Light, Shame, Scenes from a Marriage, even From the Life of the Marionettes, but with no understanding of what made the best of them powerful (Winter Light, Shame) and the least of them (Scenes from a Marriage) seem tiresome and hackneyed. So, of course, the latter has been remade for TV streaming, starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac.
But Hansen-Love specializes in a style best understood as a European version of America’s mumblecore movement — her films also resembling those of her partner, Olivier Assayas, except she is as trite about love and commitment as a Noah Baumbach vanity project. And this time Hansen-Love make little use of Assayas’s amusing gift for pop-music soundtracks (the most interesting part of her film Things to Come). Her best pop-music choice is “The Winner Takes It All,” which is as much a mistake as that Cries and Whispers clip, ABBA being what critic Charles O’Brien deemed the Mozart of pop music. When Chris and Tony’s story breaks into a subplot based on Chris’s screenplay-in-process (a diversion acted out by Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen-Lie), the ABBA classic makes it seems redundant and unimaginative.
Bergman Island treats Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre with a level of pretense not seen since Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy did their puerile versions of Eric Rohmer in their Sunset/Sunrise trilogy of heterosexual squabbling. It’s clear from this film’s nearly neuter erotic content (never a Bergman failing) that Hansen-Love’s inability to probe her characters relates to contemporary sexual disaffection. This crisis is apparent in casting the unprepossessing Krieps, who already creeped out Paul Thomas Anderson’s repellent Phantom Thread. Who, other than sexphobic feminists and soy boys, would want to see an homage to that wretched film? To a generation that knows nothing about Ingmar Bergman, Hansen-Love’s name-dropping caprice will mean even less.
Something to Consider
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