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- Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
The question of sexism, and in particular of the enabling of an abusive and overpowering position for men over women, is present everywhere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. This is hardly surprising considering the widespread impact of #MeToo on cinema and beyond, though the ways in which this new awareness is manifesting itself in the selected films has tended to prove clumsy at best, reactionary at worst.
Perhaps even more unexpected than the mention of sexual abuse allegations within the diegesis of Leos Carax’s musical Annette, which opened this year’s festival, is Mia Hansen-Løve grappling with (or rather, briefly touching on) the very current sociological topics of whether one can separate the art from the artist and the ‘female gaze’.
These two particular ideas have been the focus of extremely intense debate in France, where an impassioned defense of the freedom of expression often seems to hit a wall when it concerns women’s right to self-expression. Yet in 2018, Hansen-Løve’s previous film Maya, in which a grieving French man rediscovered the meaning of life in the arms of a much younger Indian girl, did not feel like the product of a director particularly concerned with social injustice. This appears to change with Bergman Island, the first of the French filmmaker’s films to play in competition in Cannes.
Luxembourgish star Vicky Krieps plays Chris, a filmmaker who accompanies her older boyfriend Tony (Tim Roth) to Fårö, the Swedish island where Ingmar Bergman lived and shot many of his internationally renowned films, full of psychological turmoil and cruelty. As Chris remarks, this place is much lovelier than the films make out, and the house where the couple is staying – and where Scenes From a Marriage (1973), “the film that made thousands of people divorce”, was shot – is a peaceful haven, bathing in light. She is disturbed by the dissonance and by the oppressive power of all this beauty, while Tony sets about writing his next screenplay without trouble.
Krieps thus appears to turn the tables on her dynamic with Daniel Day Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2019): this time, she seems to be the tortured artist and Tony her down-to-earth anchor. But Hansen-Løve touches on a more sombre view of the creative process when Chris takes a peek into her partner’s notebook, finding sketches of women in sexually submissive positions and the outline of what looks to be a spiritual remake of Bergman’s psychosexual freakout Persona (1966). Could Tony in fact be the tortured artist? Is making art about using big words and big concepts to dig deep into the darkest reaches of the human soul? Has Chris been doing it all wrong?
Hansen-Løve does not answer these questions directly, preferring as usual to remain in the grey area most of us are dwelling in. But she does offer some kind of suggestion when later on, having recovered from her writer’s block, Chris reads to Tony a screenplay she has just finished. The White Dress comes to life in front of our eyes, with its two main characters Amy and Joseph played by Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie, an actor who manages to be elegant without ever seeming self-conscious and is a great fit for Hansen-Løve’s unassuming visual style. Chris’s film tells the simple story of two lovers whose affair never really ended, even as life took them their separate ways; when it brings them back together on Fårö for a friend’s wedding, old wounds are reopened.
The film-within-a-film features many elements inspired by or directly echoing the people and places that Chris herself has run into on the island, though Tony wouldn’t know that. While his partner was cycling around Fårö and discovering it in her own way, he was busy soaking in the Bergman influence, going on a ‘Bergman Safari’, replete with the kind of insufferable ‘film bros’ one would expect, and featuring on panels and in Q&As to discuss his own violent and gory films.
Without pointing it out directly, Hansen-Løve thus reveals extreme differences in the couple’s creation processes: Chris embraces a horizontal approach in which the small scale events of reality are reproduced and only slightly modified, while Tony transfigures them through genre, blowing them up in exaggerated proportions.
This line of reasoning around art and creation feels rather disappointing in its oversimplification, though Hansen-Løve’s usual ambiguous and subtle style goes some way towards rounding its edges. Although Tony makes violent movies centred around female characters and is distracted from Chris’s screenplay by phone calls from his producers, he is tender and loving with her. His words of comfort and advice when she struggles to write can be clumsy but they are never patronising. Chris, meanwhile, is far from being the most supportive partner herself, ditching Tony’s Q&A to hang out with a Swede she just met – and perhaps committing an even greater betrayal.
Unfairly ignored in Cannes in 2019, Justine Triet’s Competition title Sibyl was a much more dynamic and original look at the intersections of filmmaking, psychology, love and desire. Bergman Island is a comparatively less edgy proposition and a window into the creative process that feels reductive, a sketch of a sketch of a movie that is too meta for its own good.
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