“Bergman Island,” the lyrical and absorbing new drama written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve (“Things to Come,” “Eden”), tells the story of two filmmakers who are a couple: Tony (Tim Roth), the more famous of the two, and Chris (Vicky Krieps), who has carved out her own independent niche in world cinema. They have a daughter they’re leaving with relatives, and the movie is about what happens when they journey to the island of Fårö, in the Baltic Sea, and settle into a remotely spacious country cottage with a windmill in the backyard. They’ve rented the place as a summer getaway in which to work on their latest screenplays.
It’s no accident, of course, that they’ve sought out this grassy, becalmed, picturesque island just off the southeast coast of Sweden. It’s the place made famous by Ingmar Bergman, who shot a number of his films there, like “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), “Persona” (1966), and “Hour of the Wolf” (1968), and who moved there in 1965 (it remained his principal place of residence until his death in 2007). Bergman and Fårö are etched together in a special way. The black-and-white images from his films that were shot there are indelible (the house behind foliage in “Through a Glass Darkly,” the rocky shoals of “Persona”), and that’s because Bergman had a singular gift for turning the locales he used into a metaphysically austere fairy-tale landscape. If you’re a Bergman fanatic (and I am), the images of Fårö may be as larger-than-life for you as the San Francisco landmarks of “Vertigo.” Bergman made Fårö his own mythic world — and, in fact, he was first drawn to the island because he felt like it had been made for him. It was the craggy dreamscape projection of the inner spirit of his films.
Chris and Tony both feel a kinship with Bergman, a proverbial fascination with his life and work (though Tony can’t stand “The Seventh Seal”), and “Bergman Island” counts on the audience sharing that kinship. It’s not that you’re required to be a Bergman fan to watch this movie. But “Bergman Island” is a cultivated film-freak meta drama that devotes a great deal of time to conversation about Bergman, and there’s a droll way that Fårö plays into that. In the years since Bergman died, the island, as the movie captures it, has become a kind of Ingmar Bergman theme park, replete with bus tours, lectures, a preservation foundation, and a general vibe of the place as a national treasure and tourist attraction.
It makes sense. In the 20th century, Sweden had two defining exports of global artistic majesty: Ingmar Bergman and ABBA. That Bergman is the most famously gloomy director in film history, and ABBA the most joyful ensemble in pop, speaks to some kind of karmic balance in the Swedish temperament that I don’t pretend to fully understand. Nevertheless, Bergman, viewed in his time as a pointy-headed art-house paragon, was really an artist who changed the world. In the ’50s and’ 60s, those art houses were vibrant commercial venues, and one of the officials in “Bergman Island” refers to “Scenes from a Marriage” as “the movie that made millions of people divorce.” Bergman, in his 50-shades-of-torment way, was a superstar, and his legacy looms over this movie the way it looms over cinema itself.
What’s entrancing about “Bergman Island,” and also a bit corny and programmatic about it, is that the entire thing plays as a theme-park ride of interlocking art-house conceits. As Chris and Tony journey to Fårö, first on a plane where she feels queasy, then on a ferry ride, then in a rental car whose navigation system cracks the two of them up with its mangled pronunciation of Swedish roads, the vibe between the couple is pleasant, relaxed, intimate, with an ineffable undertow — because where would a movie like this one be without an ineffable undertow?
Hansen-Løve based the film on her 15-year relationship with the director Olivier Assayas, though maybe not in too literal a way (Hansen-Løve and Assayas are French; Roth is British and Krieps is from Luxembourg; the press materials list both characters as American), and it’s one of those films where the audience is cued to absorb and deconstruct the most seemingly banal dialogue. Roth makes Tony knowing, worldly, brainy-cool, solicitous; Krieps, from “Phantom Thread,” plays Chris as sly, exploratory, tentative, yet sharply pointed. The early scenes feel like they could almost be Hansen-Løve’s variation on Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy: a two-hander that navigates the mysteries of love and distance, connection and time.
What’s the undertow about? Chris walks over to the desk where Tony has been working and opens his deluxe red notebook, which is filled with intricate writing and dark sexual bondage drawings. Does he have some secret life he’s hiding? Or is he simply a film director working out the details of a provocative project? We aren’t told, and that theme is dropped. In a chat over drinks with some of the Bergman foundation officials about how Bergman fathered nine children with six women, and was a hands-on parent to none of them because he worked obsessively, Chris raises the issue of how she wants to be a devoted filmmaker, but wonders if she could possibly have the opportunity to do it the way Bergman did. Some might say that Bergman, who lived the life of a pathological celebrity narcissist, was a great artist but a godawful role model. Tony is invited to do a Q&A after the showing of one of his films; the local audience adores him, but Chris leaves halfway through — she has already seen a lifetime of his bravura.
We can feel the growing remoteness between them. The two are supposed to go on the Bergman bus tour together, but she ditches out, leaving him to go on the tour while she makes her own private investigation of the island. She meets a lanky, morose, long-haired film student who — is this a reference or a coincidence? — looks like a grown-up version of the boy in the opening sequence of “Persona.” There’s a whisper of a flirtation between them, but only a whisper. And when Chris tells Tony that she’s struggling with the film she’s writing and asks for his help, he refuses — not out of arrogance but out of a respect for her talent, saying that she’s the only one who can burrow out of her creative tunnel. All the things a film might portray as issues between Chris and Tony — artistic rivalry, adulterous leanings, his arrogance, her withdrawal — are winked at and passed over.
That’s because Mia Hansen-Løve isn’t really making that kind of movie. She’s making a wheels-within-wheels drama with a magic door. When Chris tells Tony the story of the movie she’s working on, “Bergman Island” goes into that movie — and, for quite a while, becomes that movie. It’s a fiction within a fiction, in which Mia Wasikowska plays the central figure, who maintains a relationship through the years with a man (Anders Danielsen Lie) she’s still in love with. But they’re separate now, with other partners. And when they’re reunited at a wedding, it rips her up; it consumes her. Watching this part of “Bergman Island,” I felt a new reverence for Hansen-Løve’s talent — she sweeps you up and brings the movie to a slow boil. She’s expressing the passion that Chris, her surrogate, will not.
There’s another structural twist: It takes place at Ingmar Bergman’s house, which has been preserved just as he left it, with its books and videos, its portrait of his wife, its Scandinavian wood serenity. Chris is now completing the shooting of her film; as soon as we see her lead actor, we can color in a gap in the story she’s telling. But what, in the end, happened between Chris and Tony? We don’t know. If “Bergman Island” is a roman à clef about Mia Hansen-Løve and Olivier Assayas, it’s an oblique one. If it’s a “Before” film, it’s one that embeds a crucial element of emotional exploration in the educated guesswork of the audience. If it’s a cinephile shell game made with disarmingly clever sincerity — and I would say that’s just what it is — it’s one that leaves you grateful to have paid a visit to this island.