VIFF 2021 Review: Bergman Island

Written by Taylor Baker

88/100

Mia Hansen-Løve’s seventh feature length film entitled Bergman Island is in essence a meta fictional island getaway trip to work on new creative projects for a couple. The titular island is called Fårö, Ingmar Bergman’s palatial getaway where he crafted some of his greatest masterpieces, and some of the world’s greatest moving images. The couple Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), are each artists if not artisans working at their next projects, battling through writer’s block, and more conventionally navigating their relationship whilst doing it. Occasionally when a film is meta, deferential and/or (in this case both) referential to previous work I find myself making comparisons to other previous works of art in an effort to reach toward understanding their contents, themes, and ideas to myself or to hold the idea(s) of them in my head from another angle, at arm’s reach rather than up close, or from afar rather than in the room with me. An alliterative title that keeps doing laps in my head is that of a rebranding of Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, instead Mia Chris Fårö. Mia Wasikowska joins us in the last third of the film as Chris begins sharing her incomplete screenplay draft with Tony to try and get advice on whether he thinks there’s anything to it. Wasikowska seems to be Chris’s stand in and thus Mia Hansen-Løve’s stand in (If you’re willing to concede that Chris is Hansen-Løve’s stand in to begin with.) Are you losing track of the metaphor? Me too. That’s part of the game with these films within films about films, especially when those films are self aware of the source material.

It’s not clear to a final delineation of comprehension exactly what Hansen-Løve’s point is at the end of the film as Wasikowska’s Amy fades and Chris returns running through a field to hold her daughter. But the spirit of the idea, the ghost of the understanding is there. We spend time throughout the film learning of Bergman’s successes and failings, at one point in a dinner conversation Chris essentially asks, “Do you think he could have been the artist he was and also been a better father?” This is in reference to him having nine children from six mothers before the age of forty, to which her dinner companion scoffs in a jovial laugh and says something to the effect of “Do you think you can direct 24 films not to mention plays before 40 and spend your time changing diapers?”. There’s the ghost of a sacrifice there that Hansen-Løve herself is tackling, through Chris. What is more meaningful? The “work”? Or the family? And perhaps more deeply why can’t the family be the work? These aren’t revolutionary questions or ideations, they are eternal, Bergman himself explored them, but not in the same ways. In that way Hansen-Løve’s film isn’t just an homage using his name, it’s building on the foundation that predated Bergman but accenting itself on the very body of his labor. Revitalizing it in a way, paying deference in another, and more interestingly acknowledging the intimate relationship between an artist and an observer of the art as a relationship itself. Something that Chris herself seeks from Tony during her recounting of her screenplay whilst he receives phone calls, and treats it less deferentially than we’ve seen Chris treating Bergman’s work up to this point. What’s interesting though is it’s not a pointed finger from Hansen-Løve teaching a lesson about the absent minded husband not paying proper attention to his wife. Half a dozen times before this falling action we’ve seen Chris blow off Tony or not take his pieces of work seriously. It’s not that one is right or wrong, so much as acknowledging the intimacy that comes when someone truly connects with a piece, or pieces in a way that maps not only onto their identity but how they express themselves in the world.

All that serious thematic content may make it sound more dour and more stern or observational than it actually is. There’s a scene where Krieps’ Chris walks into the bathroom she and Tony share, the one from Scenes from a Marriage and she simply brushes her teeth. But as she’s brushing them she begins seemingly unprovoked to chortle with laughter, eventually reaching a near hysterical level. It’s not something everyone in the theater got to share, not most, not half, not even an eighth of an at capacity Vancouver Playhouse Theater understood the inside joke of. But those of us(maybe you, dear reader) who’d borne witness to some of the history of that location had a different elatory experience with Chris. The very idea that she was brushing her teeth in the same bathroom where Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson’s Marianne and Johan shot their masterpiece Scenes from a Marriage is simply hilarious. Fårö itself but especially the room Chris and Tony share, is practically a religious site for cinephiliacs, of which Hansen-Løve is clearly one. There’s shared history and through that shared emotions.

Hansen-Løve through Chris inquires as to the religiosity of Bergman himself, she and seemingly Hansen-Løve herself learned on her own trip or through her own study that he believed in ghosts before he passed. This idea of a ghost isn’t overtly dug into, it’s at the corners, the creases of the film, the backgrounds, a figure passing in front of window, or perhaps a Hansen-Løve surrogate named Chris played by Vicky Krieps having a joyful one might say soulful laugh at the very premise of brushing her teeth in the same bathroom Scenes from a Marriage was shot in.

Bergman Island Trailer

Bergman Island was screened as part of 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

Old

Written by Patrick Hao

75/100

There is a simple beauty to the premise of Old, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest feature. A seemingly idyllic family goes to a seemingly idyllic beachside. Of course, the families and the beachside are not quite idyllic as the surface suggests. For those on the beachside, they find themselves rapidly aging – a single lifetime can span 24 hours. It’s a simple metaphor and an existential terror we all face – one that can be gleaned from the trailer itself. Life passes by in an instant. Shyamalan wrings that existential vein of terror with all his earnest verve and virtuosity to make his best movie since Signs.

Old, loosely based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, centers on Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and their two precocious children, 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton). Guy and Prisca are on course to separate but decided to give their family one final vacation in an unidentified island resort. They soon find themselves on a private beach alongside one other family, the vain Chrystal (Abbey Lee) and her even more vain husband Charles (Rufus Sewell), their six-old daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey), and Charles’ aging mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), a couple, Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and a mysterious rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) who had been on the beach tending to his bloody nose when everyone arrived.

From there, a pleasant and serene beach day slowly escalates as everyone discovers that they are rapidly aging. Shyamalan and his director of photography, Mike Gioluakis, expertly utilize the Dominican Republic beach location. The sand, stuck between high rocks and the wide-ranging blue ocean, creates a claustrophobic atmosphere heightened by the camera’s lateral movements across the beach. Characters, in the tensest moments, are often shot in close-ups, with the wide lenses allowing for large amounts of negative space. There is no escaping the situation.

Within these tense spaces, Shyamalan allows his actors to give soulful performances that are no easy feat. Krieps and Bernal convincingly navigate their rapidly aging bodies, personalities, and minds. Shyamalan does the smart move of only relying on subtle hints of aging – extra wrinkles, liver spots, a touch of grey. All the while, the children, Trent, Maddox, and Kara, age into older performers Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, and Eliza Scanlan respectively. In another clever move, Shyamalan shoots these transitions between the young actors to their older counterparts slightly off center.

If anything, Shyamalan as a storyteller has always been underappreciated. Like all great thrillers, the film is filled with set up and pay off from the get-go. The screenplay is efficient and clear in setting up it’s rules and the core stakes of its ludicrous concept. 

Ultimately, it is Shyamalan’s earnestness and utter conviction in his film’s silliness – traits that have made him an easy target for cynical film fans – that allows the film to thrive as much as it does. But what that means is that Shyamalan can navigate the schlocky horror that is expected from this premise as well as the natural human emotions that would be derived from such a scenario. This may cause whiplash for some, but it mostly works – though I admit that the schlock may be a bit uneven at times. The ending might be the only cynical thing about the movie and, not because of the classic Shyamalan “twist,” but because it is the only time the film feels like it is following a studio note and not Shyamalan’s own story instincts.

The recent reappraisal of Shyamalan’s career has been heartening. After years of being an irony-laden punchline, an idiosyncratic original filmmaker like Shyamalan should be cherished in this movie landscape inundated with IP. Old is a worthy reminder to all the doubters that he is indeed one of the best suspense directors working today.

Old Trailer

Old is now screening theatrically in wide release.

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