yesix years ago, Mia Hansen-Løve went to a little Baltic island to write a screenplay. On the face of it, a terrible idea. Fårö is not just any island, but the place Ingmar Bergman lived, worked, died and is buried.
Like a cinephile Goldilocks, Hansen-Løve slept in a bed in his old house, which may have been haunted. “One night I was alone watching a documentary on Bergman. He was talking about ghosts and sitting in his kitchen about him. Exactly where I was sitting! I freaked out, and fled to a B&B. I’ve never felt so close to believing in ghosts.”
How on earth did she expect to get any work done, haunted by the ghost of a narcissist? “When I think about it rationally it should have been awful,” she says over a video call from Paris. “The burden of Bergman’s heritage! This big male genius!”
Bergman was one of those annoying people who find creativity easy: “For him it was a constant flow of ideas.” For Hansen-Løve, now 41, it is the opposite: “I always feel I have the one thing to say but always that it will be the last thing. And I always think this will be the last film I write. All that makes every new writing process tense and somehow painful. I feel very jealous of Bergman”
She had a simple premise for her screenplay. Amazingly, in Bergman’s house, she managed to develop it into her new film, a clever, playful postmodern work about sex, relationships, the anxiety of influence, how reality makes art, and vice versa, and how artistic couples help and hinder each other’s creativity.
Most of all, though, it is about how making movies is a different business for women than for men like Bergman. It begins with a couple, Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps), both film directors, arriving one summer on Fårö to write their screenplays – just as Hansen-Løve did. Tony is older and more successful, and his screenplay of him spools out of him seemingly unbidden. Chris struggles, worrying if her sliver of an idea is any good.
Bergman Island has been taken by some as a “film-à-clef” about Hansen-Løve’s relationship with the French film director Olivier Assayas, who is 26 years her senior. In 1998, aged 17 and still a lycéenne, she made her screen debut in Assayas’s Late August, Early September. Two years later she appeared in his Sentimental Destinies, by which time they were lovers.
After studying dramatic art and writing for Cahiers du Cinéma, Hansen-Løve directed her first film, All Is Forgiven (2007), followed by The Father of My Children (2009). Her recent films of her have drawn on intimate relationships. In 2011’s Goodbye First Love, the architect, who becomes a young student’s mentor and lover, is modeled on Assayas; in Eden (2015), the DJ is modeled on her ella brother Sven; and in Things to Come in 2016, Isabelle Huppert plays a character inspired by Mia’s philosopher mother.
On Bergman Island, which she wrote the year she and Assayas broke up, the couple’s marriage is unraveling: his emotional chilliness with her contrasts with the intense bondage-sex drawings she discovers in his notebook, while she seems liberated by a flirtation with a gawky film student she meets on the island.
She draws a parallel between her couple and the lovers in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. “Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman meet again after years of alienation. He says to her: ‘What shall we do now?’ and she says: ‘Let’s fuck!’ The couple are very close, yet very distant. It’s a paradox and yet I understand it very well. Tony and Chris are like that – a couple who are remote, yet intimate. That sort of paradox is very much what my film is about.
“But it isn’t autobiographical,” she adds. Not at all? “I understand why people would say that and, of course, Olivier has certainly inspired some aspects of the character of Tony.”
In one scene in the film, Tony tells an admiring audience after a screening that his films always have to have a female lead. A quick look at Assayas’s filmography – Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep, Emmanuelle Béart in Sentimental Destinies, Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria or Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper – suggest that Tony’s creative tastes mirror Olivier’s.
But Tony and Olivier are very different, Hansen-Løve insists. “Olivier never set foot on the island, though he is an admirer of Bergman’s work. Maybe he would have been scared to. For me, maybe it’s easier because I’m just like this female director so there is no chance that I would compare myself to Bergman.”
Certainly there is no oedipal score settling in Hansen-Løve’s film. But there is something more interesting – a meditation on what it means to be as cruel and ruthless in life and art as Bergman, and where it’s necessary to be a narcissist to be truly creative.
Early in the film, Chris and Tony have dinner with the leading members of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, who tell her that the great genius directed more than 60 films and 170 plays, while fathering nine children with six women. “How do you think he could have done that if he was also changing diapers?” asks one of them, rhetorically.
The question goes to the heart of Hansen-Løve’s concerns. She has a daughter with Assayas and a son by her current partner, the film-maker Laurent Perreau. “When you are a woman and you make films and you make kids, you have these worries. Does being a mother mean I’m not going to be involved enough in my films? Can I be a director in the way I want to be – passionately, psychologically and spiritually engaged?
“It’s fucking difficult!” she shouts.
It wasn’t for Bergman. He let his partners de him – including the stars of his films Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson-do the child-rearing, while he made three films a year, many of them deranging studies of female experience. “I haven’t put an ounce of effort into my families,” Bergman once said.
And yet, she refuses to be judgmental. “I would probably not have liked to have been one of his women from him, but then I am very happy he made 60 films that I can watch and enjoy.” She says she takes succor from the fact that one of his sons, Ingmar Bergman Jr, has revived his father’s film production company. “He seems to be at total peace with who his father was. I find that quite beautiful. We can forgive even bad fathers.”
Nor is she critical about the transformation of Fårö, since Bergman’s death in 2007, into a secular shrine. Today, you can go on a local “big Bergman safari” bus tour of his film. There are conferences about his films and retreats for artists just as he wished. Screenings take place at his home cinema, though visitors are warned not to sit in the great man’s seat.
When I giggle over this, Hansen-Løve demurs. “This kind of sacralisation of the cinema and of the director is something that I don’t want to spit on. I think it’s important for the kind of film-lovers that I belong to. It’s part of the beauty of the relationship to this art.”
Happily, Mia Hansen-Løve was not crushed by the great man’s burden while she worked on Fårö. Instead, she was creatively catalyzed to write with unprecedented freedom. “I can’t explain really, but I never felt so much lightness and peacefulness and I would even say playfulness.”
That beguiling playfulness comes out clearly in how the film blurs fiction and reality. When Chris describes her scenario of her to Tony, her idea of her comes to life before us as a film within the film we’re watching. It’s the story of a woman called Amy (Mia Wasikowska), who rekindles an affair with an old flame, Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), when they both attend a friend’s wedding on Fårö.
Then, Hansen Love’s film gets even more imaginatively playful. We see Chris shooting the film she described to Tony. Wasikowska and Lie appear as themselves, and Chris flirts with Lie. It’s more than a Brechtian demolition of the fourth wall. “It is a very complex concept, but there is nothing intellectual about how I wrote it. It was something mystical, like a vision.”
Her latest film, One Fine Morning, which premieres at Cannes this month, was made in lockdown and stars Léa Seydoux as a single mother. Once more, it draws on the director’s own life and explores another emotional paradox. “It’s the portrait of a woman whose father is dying, and she’s overcome with grief and yet she is also falling in love at the same time. It’s about those two impossible emotions existing together. Impossibility,” she laughs, “is what I want to show in cinema.”