Mia Hansen-Løve is the writer-director behind Goodbye First Love, All Is Forgiven and Things to Come. Her latest film, Bergman Island, premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It follows a filmmaker couple who visits Fårö one summer to find inspiration in Ingmar Bergman’s former home (and the place where he shot many of his films). As their relationship fractures, the lines between fiction and reality blur. Mia shares how she came to filmmaking, and why Bergman Island has personal resonance.

As told to A.frame...

As a teenager, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew what I didn’t want to do because both my parents were teachers, and I admired them a lot, but I thought their life was too austere. The life of my parents was hard. They were working nonstop. I wanted to lead a life that would be more adventurous. But at the same time, I owe them a lot because they transmitted their values to me, intellectually. And these values are in my films.

I wanted to write, but I didn’t like what I was writing. And then, by accident—by chance I should say—I acted in a film when I was 18 years old, and that was the beginning of the story for me. One day, when I found myself on set directing my first short film, I must have been 21 or 22, I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker. And that gave me a strength I never imagined I had. That’s really the moment when I realized that you could think you’re fragile and weak and vulnerable, and actually be quite strong when you are in the right place.

I think my film Goodbye First Love [2011] was somehow trying to express that because it was a film about a girl who had never overcome her first love, but she became an architect and she discovered her vocation. I think that’s the story of my life somehow.

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How can you really turn where you’re the weakest into where you’re the strongest?  —Mia Hansen-Løve

I think even Bergman Island deals with that. My films always start with personal experiences. It doesn’t mean that they are necessarily autobiographical in the conventional way of it; they are not autobiographies. This is the first time I made a film where the main character is a female director, just as I am, but all of my films are as personal as this one. 

Personal filmmaking

What’s new for me about this film is that it was so frontal. It was the first time I actually represented a woman who had the same vocation as me. The film is nourished by years of experience. Experience being a director, living with another director, and the complicity, and distance, and feeling of being strong because you are two, and being lonely at the same time. All these things that the film deals with are things that have been part of my life for so many years. 

For years, I wanted to make a film about this, but I didn’t know how and where and which form it would take. Until I got the idea of setting it in Fårö. I had never been there, and it was really a place you dream up, a place of pilgrimage. Sort of a fantasy, fantasme.

When I went there the first time [in 2014 or 2015], it was because of the film, but that same year, they invited me to Bergman Week [an annual tribute to the Swedish filmmaker]. I took this as an opportunity to go there, and to confront my fantasy of the place, to see what comes out. And it was even stronger than I expected.

Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie in 'Bergman Island'

Since then, I went back each year. We were shooting during two different summers, in 2018 and 2019, and I ended up spending so much time on the island, to a point where it almost felt like a second home. I was there with my kids, with my family, my mother. I actually miss it. Even now, after the film is finished, I still miss it.

Love and creativity

If you talk about [the mixing of the creative process and a romantic partnership], you have to talk about ambivalence. That’s the word that sums up what it’s really about. To me, these two people love each other, and they have a real intellectual and artistic complicity. There is distance and there is loneliness because you have to accept that there is a territory belonging to the other person that you cannot go in, that belongs only to this person. I think that’s sometimes difficult when you live with an artist. He or she has to have his or her private garden. There is a place where you cannot go.

It brings some tension, and it brings some fragility to a couple, I think, but on the other hand, there can be also a lot of gratitude and generosity and comprehension and respect. I think the portraits I’m trying to make of [the characters] Chris and Tony have both. And that’s why I think my film is deeply ambiguous at the end. They are at this place where they are [walking a tightrope]. They could fall. The couple could be destroyed. We don’t know, because the film stops here. I think their relationship is very fragile.

[Ingmar] Bergman is not only a director who I admire immensely, but he’s also the director who portrayed, better than anybody else, the relationship between men and women. I feel my film is also really about that. So it really makes sense, as I was making a film about inspiration and relationships, [to set it in] the place of the great director of depicting human relationships. The themes that are the ones of his films … I express them in my own way.

Mia Wasikowska in 'Bergman Island'

The thing that was crucial was [casting] Vicky Krieps, who was going to become my alter ego because she was going to be the main director of that film. It was very important for me that this actress would not only be a great actress but would also be an actress who had the kind of qualities that made her credible, for me, as a director. I had seen her in Phantom Thread—I loved her so much in that film—and I was hoping I would make a film with her one day. But more than that, there is the fact that I think she relates exactly the kind of authority you need to have to be a director.

When I say authority, I don’t mean that she has to be self-confident; as you can see, she’s not in the film. She speaks about her weaknesses. But you can see in her way of moving, of being, she has a determination, a secret one maybe. She’s not only fragile and weak and vulnerable. She’s also strong and inhabited by this vocation. I don’t think any other actress could play that.

Hansen-Løve photo © Judicaël Perrin. All photos courtesy of IFC Films.