The medium of cinema has only been around for a little more than a century. Yet even in that relatively short time, there are numerous filmmakers who have developed cult followings, achieving an incredible degree of success that in some cases has not been truly seen until after their lifetimes. Fans become as obsessed with the life and story of the person creating the work as they are with the work itself, chasing clues to their past and their inspirations long after they are gone. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman is one such figure, and the film Bergman Island looks at the effect he has had on his devotees and their own approach to their craft.
Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) arrive on the island of Fårö, famous as the longtime residence of Bergman and the place where he made many of his most well-known films. Both are working on screenplays and seeking inspiration from the master they so admire. As they split their time between writing and taking tours of the locations associated with important Bergman relics, their scripts come to life with Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) acting out the imagined realities they are conceiving.
This film’s title cements its connection to the named filmmaker, and those who respect and know Bergman will likely enjoy an enhanced experience because of the very felt presence that the late Bergman, who died in 2007 at age eighty-nine in Fårö, has. But his identity isn’t quite as important as what he represents, which is the stature that an auteur can attain, which suggests an extraordinary relevance to what both Chris and Tony are doing, and particularly where they are doing it. Though they haven’t yet achieved a renown anywhere near that of Bergman, they, like so many, do aspire for that, and any eventual comparison to Bergman is among the largest compliments they could ever hope to receive.
It’s interesting to watch as different personalities come together to show their love for Bergman, eagerly exploring the places that are either confirmed to be relevant to his history or rumored. At one point, Chris gets caught up in the allure of one hunt for treasure, and, at another, Tony reveals to her that a house she so wanted to see was merely constructed for the film and doesn’t exist in real life. There is a rivalry between this couple, one that manifests itself mostly in Chris expressing her difficulty concentrating and Tony conveying a superiority that isn’t necessarily supported by his output.
The eagerness Chris has to share what she has written so far with Tony becomes enchanting, since the story of Amy and Joseph is far livelier and more cinematic. It’s also a welcome escape from a search for connection to a dead filmmaker, though of course the characters are also aware of the existence and legacy of Bergman. It’s easy to become entranced by that other story, which is occasionally interrupted by Tony’s ringing cell phone. The realities of the present disrupt the nostalgic romance of her draft, returning viewers back to a place where writing doesn’t come easy and is never actually as polished as a filmed scene would indicate.
This film becomes more and more engaging as it goes on and Chris in particular becomes hypnotized by her own work coming to life. Her interactions with the characters, which manifest as direct conversation, are immensely interesting, and speak volumes about the way in which she becomes part of her writing. The performances from Krieps, Roth, Wasikowska, and Lie are all engrossing and dynamic, elevating a thought-provoking tale of cinematic legacy and adaptation.
Bergman Island is now playing in theaters and on VOD.