“There’s a truth in art established over time,” Isabelle Huppert’s philosophy professor tells her students in French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2016 film, “Things to Come.” “Why can’t time get it wrong?” one of her young academics questions.
Titled “L’Avenir” (“The Future”) in the filmmaker’s native language, “Things to Come,” features a scene wherein Huppert’s character attends a screening of Abbas Kiarostami’s playful and profoundly meta, “Certified Copy,” a film which shares many aspects with Hansen-Løve’s latest picture “Bergman Island.” Following a filmmaking couple (played by Vicky Krieps & Tim Roth, both perfectly cast) on an artistic retreat to the island of Fårö, a location Swedish director Ingmar Bergman shot many of his films, beginning with “Through a Glass Darkly.” Exploring the requisite creative tension between loneliness and camaraderie, Hansen-Løve’s movie is made of two parallel narratives “reflecting the same film endlessly,” finding Krieps’ filmmaker character, Chris, conceiving her next project, one that echoes her past and present in a number of ways.
In an uncannily suitable twist of fate, Greta Gerwig was originally slated to play Chris, but had to drop out of the film when it came in conflict with her desire to direct “Little Women.” Fittingly, this situation also very much mirrors the revolving central conceit of Hansen-Løve’s film; a movie that uses the close to mythological reverence for a world cinema icon to examine the contradictory expectations that come from merely existing as a woman with an artistic vocation.
In contrast to a scene in Hansen-Løve’s ex-partner Olivier Assayas‘ “Non-Fiction”—one that finds a male character assuming the women he is in bed with has seen an Ingmar Bergman film before—“Bergman Island” features a moment, inside its film within a film, where Mia Wasikowska’s character – a reflection of Krieps’ Chris, and Hansen-Løve, herself—is asked if she’s ever seen a Bergman movie, by a groom who can’t be bothered to shave for his own wedding. She tells him that she has. Then he asks how many. “A lot of them,” she replies.
Pushing back against long-standing misogynistic assumptions that a beautiful woman can’t possibly be more intellectually versed in a topic than her ivy school male equivalent, “Bergman Island” feels truly seminal and far overdue in many respects. As the director concedes herself, it’s far from the first movie ever made about the process of being a female filmmaker, but there really aren’t that many in the history of motion pictures, which really paints a better picture than words ever could, like cinema itself.
Long time admirers of Hansen-Løve’s skillfully impassioned body of work (“Eden” landed at #79 on our Top 100 Films of the last decade), we were fortunate enough to sit down with the remarkably talented filmmaker for a brief chat about her latest, which she had to shoot over two summers thanks to the recasting situation. We discussed her writing process, how the making of the movie affected her way of seeing Bergman, and the inherent difference to your relationship with creation when you are the one expected to take care of whatever children you might bear.
Setting has always been important in your films but here it takes center stage. You mentioned being “magnetically drawn to the island.” Was this through Bergman’s movies, or after you started developing projects on Fårö?
Both. The Fårö you discover when you arrive on the island is very different from the one you see in Bergman’s films, and I think that’s what I enjoyed so much about it. If the Fårö I was discovering had been exactly the same as the one Bergman portrayed, I probably would not have found enough space for myself. Because there were two Fårö’s— Bergman’s Fårö and the other Fårö, that was still some kind of virgin territory—but at the same time, the Fårö of Bergman’s is very much there, of course, Fårö constantly being haunted by Bergman’s presence. Because you had both these versions of the island, that became very exciting for me. I could try and film Bergman’s presence – on that Fårö — and I could also try and explore territory that felt virgin.
Is there something about revisiting films you already had a prior relationship with that’s changed—simply strengthened that connection between yourself, the island, and the art—and are there any specific Bergman movies you see differently now?
I don’t know how connected I felt before. I was a huge admirer, and I have to confess that now I feel really connected. Maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to say that, because the fact that I spent a lot of time there doesn’t mean I got closer to his work, or to Bergman, but I can’t help feeling connected to him after spending so much time on this territory.
The other day I rewatched “The Touch,” a Bergman film I like very much, and realized the film had been shot in Visby, which is a town that’s not on Fårö, but, when you are on Fårö, you travel to the bigger island, Gotland, to buy food. Visby is the big city in Gotland. That’s where he shot “The Touch,” and it moved me a lot to actually recognize that place, for instance, as I’ve also spent a lot of time there, and I have my own memories and my own experiences of that place too. So now, my relationship with this island has expanded and after spending so much time there—5 consecutive years; I never stayed there for a whole year, but sometimes I was there for weeks or months—it’s both for me: it’s Bergman Island but [laughs] it’s also my island, where I have my own memories, experiences, and my relationship to that place. It made my relationship with Fårö and Bergman’s films pretty rich.
And it becomes Chris’s Island too, right? She could have titled her film “Bergman Island,” or “The White Dress.”
Yes! I was going to name the film “My Fårö,” at some point.
Oh, that’s interesting! Can you talk about shooting the movie in two parts? Because of production issues, you had to shoot the film within the film first, right?
Yes, exactly. The cast had to change shortly before the shoot. We were supposed to shoot the film in the summer of 2018, with Greta Gerwig. But she decided to make “Little Women” instead. That’s when I decided to offer the part to Vicky Krieps, who I had seen in “Phantom Thread.” It was a mess, at this point, and I didn’t want to lose the other actors. It was clear we were not going to be able to shoot the whole film in summer 2018, because now I needed to find a new husband for Chris [laughs] and that was going to take me time.
I didn’t want to lose Mia and Anders [Danielsen Lie] because I love both of them and this was my only chance to keep them in the film—by shooting the parts with them first. We shot their stuff, and then the second part the next year, with Vicky and Tim [Roth]. Which was a weird experience and I thought it was a horrible thing to do. It’s a little bit like torture for a director to only have half of a film—to edit that half and have to wait one more year to finish. But I actually ended up enjoying that aspect because it allowed me to stay with my film longer, and I enjoyed making this film so much. Being with this film felt so good that I realized I kind of enjoyed shooting it over two years, somehow. I was happy to come back and shoot on Fårö again the next year.
That’s so fascinating… it’s sort of like a reverse echo reverberating back on the ideas of the film. Did you change any parts of the creative framework because of that? Tim Roth’s character has the line, “If we push, we’ll lose half the actors.”
No, actually. The fact that I had the images and had already edited the second part, before shooting the first —which is weird—was actually great because that helped me decide, more precisely, how I wanted to shoot the first. It gave me more time. It’s a film that gained a lot of maturation—it grew up—somehow, thanks to the time that was given to it. But I didn’t change anything about the structure. Everything was like this from the start.
The other thing is, because I’m not fluent in English—I can speak English but not like Americans, of course—I really trusted the actors a lot, and they helped me with the dialog. I wanted the lines to really become theirs. I’ve never given so much freedom to actors, in terms of the way they spoke. Both Tim and Vicky really appropriated the lines. They changed some of the dialog to make it sound more like they would naturally say it. Because I don’t speak English as well as they do, I have to trust them when it comes to language, and I really enjoyed doing that, giving them that freedom.
Sounds like a very cool process. I rewatched “Things to Come,” recently, and I thought this one exchange was particularly noteworthy. Isabelle Huppert’s character says something to the effect of: “How many women who are my age leave their husbands?” The man she’s talking to responds “There are plenty of them,” and Huppert fires back, “In movies.” Chris questions this very same idea in “Bergman Island.” She says, “Bergman could have 9 kids with 5 women, but I never could.” Sorry if this is a long and somewhat generalized question, but do you feel any kind of pressure, or creative responsibility as a female director, given how canonized works by artists such as Bergman are?
I was certainly interested in trying to show what it is to be an artist and a writer from a female perspective. In the history of cinema, I don’t know if there are any well-known films about women filmmakers that have been made before. Now there may be more—I’m not pretending to be the first—but I don’t think there are very many films that actually depict female directors, and you have tons of films depicting male directors and male artists, of course. Now, we do have more films about female artists, but they’ll often be about writers from the 19th century. They’re always set in the past. But actually showing what it is to be a filmmaker, today, as a woman director, I thought that was interesting, because I think it is different.
I agree with that scene with Chris, where they’re having dinner, and talking about the fact that a woman could not have done what Bergman was doing. I still love Bergman’s films. I admire him, and I don’t judge him for [his privileges], but I truly think that whatever Bergman did in distilling his family life into his work, a woman could not do it. It would be just impossible.
When you are a woman who writes and has a vocation, and you have a family at the same time—kids and everything—you have to deal with different things. I think your relationship to creation is not the same. Although I think everyone has a different relationship to creation, regardless, I do think that female artists don’t have the exact same relationship to the balance one needs to find between a family life and creation, [a balance] that most men have.
And I’m not speaking on this in an effort to criticize, or judge, or preach unfairness. I think it’s worth speaking about. Look at it and be able to say, “It is different!” I know I will never be like Bergman. I will never have 9 kids and make 60 films. I have two kids now and I take care of them. I need to take care of them—mentally, I need that. It’s about finding a balance. I do write in a very different way than Bergman did. I can’t just go into a house on an island and say, “Fuck you, I’m doing my thing! I will make two films a year, no matter what happens to my family.” I cannot do that. I have to find another way to work, and write, and to make it all come together. I found it interesting to reflect on that, so setting it on Fårö was the best place I could have possibly imagined. Fårö symbolizes absolute creation, absolute freedom. When you are a woman, and you have kids, and you write, it’s more complicated, as you cannot find that kind of freedom. But you do find it, differently, and that dialog was stimulating for me.
I found it incredibly compelling. A moment that stood out for me is when Chris is trying on the sunglasses—the way you shoot, stage, and edit that scene, the cutting between the mirror and the photograph that Chris’s image is mirroring. So much going on. Do you conceive of all these elements during your writing process, or?
I write very instinctively, and I figure out what it all means later. Of course, the meaning is there from the start, but I don’t write theoretically—its very intuitive, my writing. I have ideas that I know I want to make into a film about this or that, but, when I write, it’s initially a series of impressions and ideas connected with one another. I’m looking for a certain flow and fluidity. And it’s not always rational or self-conscious. The meaning of what I am doing and why I am doing it—the overall intention—is something I become aware of later while I analyze it and talk things over. When writing, I follow my instincts most of the time.
“Bergman Island” opens in theaters and VOD on October 15.