Tony and Chris are both screen writers. He’s older, more experienced, more confident – used to directing his own scripts. She’s less sure of herself. They’ve both just arrived in Fårö, the Swedish island where Ingmar Bergman lived for many years and where many of his films were shot. Tony is there to introduce his latest film. While he’s there, he’ll probably dash off another script. Chris is also trying to write something but she’s struggling with writer’s block.
They are billeted in Bergman’s old house, and are to sleep in the bed used for Scenes from a Marriage, the “film that caused a million couples to divorce.” Things are tense between them, but it’s hard to tell how much this is just their personal style. Tony doesn’t want to discuss his new script in case he jinxes it, Chris has an acute need to talk through everything she has written or is unable to write.
While Tony attends panel talks, to the adulation of all attending, Chris decides that she’s had enough of this and wanders off. In the graveyard in which Bergman is buried she meets Hampus, a visiting student. They spend the day together, exchanging glances, but not acting on them. Chris returns to Tony who asks her about her day. When he asks if Hampus was sexy, she says “yes” (he isn’t).
The island is full of Bergman nerds, the sort who have long intense discussions about whether the proper English title of Bergman’s film Skammen should be Shame or The Shame. At one stage, three men try to one-up each other, saying that people less important than themselves think that 3 of Bergman’s films are a trilogy. “Of course Bergman originally said they were a trilogy but then rescinded”. “Well the fact that Bergman called them a trilogy doesn’t make them a trilogy”.
It’s like being stuck in a kitchen at a party and you can’t get to any of the booze because the most boring people in the universe are in the way. I have a similar feeling reading some critics agonize about how much Bergman Island is really about director Mia Hansen-Løve’s doomed relationship with Olivier Assayas. Look, feel free to make films about your own life – it’s probably good to write about what you know. But if a story is boring in real life, it will be equally boring on screen.
Fortunately, the film takes a dramatic shift halfway through when Chris starts to overcome her writer’s block. She explains her new story to Tony, who is regularly interrupted by calls from work. As Chris tells her story, Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie appear on screen to play out the story of Amy – a film director who is visiting Fårö for a friend’s wedding, but also to seek out her first love Joseph.
There is something terribly solipsistic about a film maker writing a script about her own problematic relationship in which a film maker writes a script about her problematic relationship in which a film maker has a problematic relationship. Maybe if the characters had been interesting enough up till now, we’d have accepted the self-indulgence – in fact, many critics seem to love Bergman Island. For me, there’s a big problem in it not being actually about anything.
In case things aren’t meta enough for you, at one stage Chris wakes up to see Anders – the actor playing the character in the film she hasn’t finished writing yet, who shares some flirty gestures with her before they meet up with Mia, the actor playing another character in the unwritten film. I really don’t know if this is supposed to be funny or profound, but it’s not really either.
Similarly at one stage, Hampus returns – this time not to meet Chris but to play drunk ludo with Mia. Again there are plenty of suggestive glances but no real consequences. Mia and Anders briefly rekindle their old relationship before he gets scared and flees back to his girlfriend. For much of the rest of the film, Mia worries whether her dress is white, off-white or beige.
For all this, Bergman Island is perfectly fine. It’s a decent film. It’s ok. It’s got Tim Roth in it, acting as well as he has in quite a while. The relationships between Chris and Tony, and Mia and Anders are vaguely interesting and you don’t catch yourself waiting for the film to end. There are even some vaguely interesting discussions on Bergman – would a female director have been allowed to have 9 children by 6 different partners and produce his body of work?
But ultimately, “not so boring” is not a judgement that should get people flocking to watch. This is a film makers film about film makers, for film makers. The rest of us can leave them to themselves.