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It’s been an intense year for Mia Hansen-Løve. The French director of All Is Forgiven (2007) and Things to Come (2016) had finished her new film — her English-language debut Bergman Island, starring Tim Roth, Vicky Krieps, and Mia Wasikowska — when COVID struck and France, along with much of the world, went into lockdown. Then, last April, her father caught the coronavirus and died of complications.
“This whole year has been awful,” says Hansen-Løve. “My father died and I couldn’t work, I couldn’t write. I have nothing positive to say about 2020.”
Krieps and Roth star in Bergman Island as two American filmmakers who take a pilgrimage to Fårö, the island where legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (Scenes From a Marriage, Wild Strawberries) lived and shot most of his movies. After more than a year on the shelf, the film — shot entirely on Fårö — will finally see the light of day in Cannes, where Bergman Island premieres in competition on Monday, July 12. IFC has picked up the movie for U.S. release.
Mia Hansen-Løve spoke to The Hollywood Reporter‘s European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough about loss, love and Bergman’s enduring influence.
What was the origin of Bergman Island?
I think the film started for me many years ago – the first thing about the film was not the island of Fårö, but the idea to make a film about writing, about creating, about a couple where both do that. I’d had that in mind for a while and was waiting for the right time and right frame to make a film about it. A couple of years ago, I started thinking about Färo, which is a very special place. And Bergman means a lot for me, as he does for a lot of filmmakers.
I had a book that was printed after Bergman’s death when his house and property were to be auctioned off, and this book had all the pictures of the island and all his objects, both commonplace and extraordinary. That got the machine in my head working about taking this idea of the creative couple and putting them on the island.
What has Ingmar Bergman meant to you as a filmmaker?
I admire Bergman’s work immensely. His films have been companions for me as a director for as long as I’ve been one. I didn’t grow up with his films — I first encountered them in my 20s — but the impact of his work on me has only grown year after year. Even after making the film, having spent so much time on the island, in the presence of his ghost, and the ghost of his work, it hasn’t reduced his impact on me.
I still have such passionate love for his work, how he deals with couples but above all with his artist integrity, his absolute sincerity. When filmmaking becomes difficult, and there is political pressure, moral pressure or economic pressure to compromise your artist vision, thinking of Bergman helps lead me in the right direction.
Not that I would ever imitate his style. My films are, stylistically, very different from his and I’ve never tried, and don’t think I ever have, made a film directly influenced by Bergman. I don’t make films that reference other directors. But he’s been part of my imagination for 15 years, and I think making this film was a way to try to understand why Bergmann has been so influential for me.
This is your English-language debut. Did you write the script in English?
I wrote the film in French, and then the film was translated, and then the challenge for me was to let the film – let the dialog – be transformed by the actual performers, so it wouldn’t sound translated. I’d never before given my actors such freedom and I was hugely helped by them. Vicky (Krieps) plays an American and speaks English but she is European — half German and half from Luxembourg — in terms of culture she is very European. And that helped me to connect with her to feel closer to her character than if she had been American. Tim Roth wrote a lot of personal things into his character, some of the nuances in the role came directly from him.
I was aware it was risky to make the film in English but it had to be. I wanted it to be a fictional story and English was the door into that fiction, it gave me the necessary distance to the story.
You based Father of My Children (which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2009) on the life of the late French producer Humbert Balsan and have said you mined your mother’s life for Things to Come. So is Bergman Island not as autobiographical and personal as some of your previous films?
I think this film is equally as personal as my previous films. In all my films there is a balance between an autobiographical dimension and something more fictional. All mix both. Even myself I don’t know what is fiction and what is biography, and this film deals with that confusion. I think that balance that has been going on in my films is still the same here but it just takes another form.
I should add there is a bit of autobiographical detail though: my name is Danish, it comes from my grandfather, who I never met, he died very early. That is a void in my family story, a void around my family origins. So I guess for me going to Bergman Island was a way to get closer to my roots, to search for them.
What’s the significance of the characters in Bergman Island being filmmakers?
Vocation is one of the themes of all my films, how the meanings of the lives of people often come from their vocation. In this case, what interested me was to try and understand that there is something very fragile about the couple I am showing in the film.
There is an oscillation, a tension between what separates them and what unites them. If you are in a relationship with an artist, there is part of their inner world you expressly don’t have access to that is the source of their creativity. It is painful to realize but if you respect that world, it can be possible to live together. But there is this path, their secret garden of imagination or whatever you want to call it, that you from the outside can not go into. There is always a tension between how much you can share and how much you cannot share, how much the creative process takes over from the love.
What was it like shooting on Fårö?
It’s been the most extraordinary experience of shooting for me. To the point that it became addictive. I kept going back to the island for five years. First to discover it, a year later to write the script. The year after to prepare the production. Then we shot in 2018 and 2019. For five years I spent every summer there. I love that place. Usually, when you shoot in a place, after you’re done, it kills it for you. But I’m still nostalgic for Fårö. I don’t have enough distance yet so I still don’t know what impact it will have on my way of working and how much I have been shocked or deeply transformed by what happened there.
How have you been transformed by the past year, by the pandemic and not being able to work?
For me it has been awful. I didn’t work, I couldn’t write. My father died from COVID. I am still in grief somehow. I don’t have anything positive to say about 2020. But now, going back to work, having my film in Cannes, getting ready to shoot something new, is something. I’m coming back to life again.
Bergman Island was shot and finished before lockdown. It was waiting in boxes. But that wasn’t painful, what was painful was not being able to work and to lose my father.
In a way, a very selfish way, I enjoyed staying with my film for an extra year. When a film is released, it’s like a child leaving home. Having the film stay with me for a year more was a nice thing.
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