After the rare wrong move of 2018's Maya - the first of her films to go undistributed in the UK since her 2007 debut All is Forgiven - Mia Hansen-Løve has headed north, with another film that simultaneously feels like a pilgrimage and a quest for renewed purpose. Bergman Island uses the opportunity provided by a shoot on Fårö, the rocky outcrop on which Ingmar Bergman lived for the bulk of his creative life, as a means of thinking through such resurgently topical themes as the art's relationship to the artist, and the eternal dilemma of whether or not it's possible for a creative to have it all. An early exchange notes that Bergman signed off on fifty films in his lifetime, most of them noteworthy, several stone-cold classics; yet he was also an absent father to the nine children he conceived with six different women. He remains, and Hansen-Løve is wise enough to register this, an inspiration and a cautionary tale, not to mention an artist intensely aware of his own shortcomings as a human being.
In his wake, Hansen-Løve dispatches German filmmaker Chris (Vicky Krieps, from Phantom Thread), who despite the breezy presence of her older director boyfriend Tony (Tim Roth) - drawn this way for a screening of one of his films - arrives on Fårö restless, neurotic and unhappy. (A Bergman heroine in waiting, if ever there was.) In as much as Bergman Island contains a plot, it resides almost entirely within Chris herself: the changeability of the Fårö landscape, with its meadows, sandy beaches and sudden downpours, mirrors her own emotional landscape. The story she conjures up during her stay - which we see being played out on screen by Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie - feels like an attempt to exorcise a few ghosts and think something through, much as Hansen-Løve is doing. With her light touch and outward-looking, benevolent gaze, you perhaps wouldn't expect the latter to have all that much in common with her world-weary inspiration, yet they're both drawn to interior states. Bergman Island finds Hansen-Løve wondering whether shame and torment, cries and whispers can meaningfully co-exist with the smiles of a summer night.
The answer, of course, is yes, just as the ABBA discography, landed on not so far from this locale, gave rise in its turn to both "Mamma Mia" and "The Winner Takes It All", a song which pops up in passing to underline the point. (Old Ingmar wasn't this Earth's only soul to have contained multitudes.) If it consequently never feels especially profound in its conclusions, Hansen-Løve's inquiry at least demonstrates the benefits of going with the flow wherever possible. This filmmaker is vastly more relaxed than her onscreen surrogate, keen to stretch her legs, feel the sun on her face and discover a little-filmed place location by location, scene by scene. She's relaxed enough to recruit actual employees of the Bergman estate, who dot the film with infobursts - and a certain amount of eccentric fun is conveyed at the idea of Bergman of all filmmakers inspiring the kind of tourist industry we generally associate with Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings series. (What next, the underpass in Irreversible getting its own blue plaque?) Anyone with an interest in arthouse film in general and Bergman in particular will likely find this leisurely walking tour engaging on some level - for much of Bergman Island's running time, it's just nice to be there - and there's an appreciable flow to the way Chris's narrative eventually meshes with the film-within-the-film.
Yet I still had the nagging sensation that Hansen-Løve needs us to be relaxed, so as to usher us past her more stilted and self-conscious English-language dialogue; and the story-within-the-story, though capably performed, may actually be even wispier than the framing device. (It's a stray thought or fleeting fancy, the kind of what-if impulse creatives scatter in the push towards a finished artwork.) As signalled by a recurring image here - that of a woman gambolling down a beach towards the sea - Hansen-Løve remains in the downtime phase of her career: having been acclaimed for writing what she knows best (a pen portrait of the French film industry in Father of My Children, overviews of a musical scene in Eden and the literary-academic sphere in Things to Come), she's started to be invited elsewhere, to festivals and residencies like those Bergman Island depicts. Her openness to the creative possibilities these opportunities might provide is admirable and rather charming - she's a graceful and grateful tourist - but her best movies have always sought (and found) magic, or some other form of escape, in the humdrum everyday. These holiday films - holiday films, as in holiday photos - can be pleasurable: they offer fresh faces and gorgeous scenery, a retreat from and overview of life typically experienced in relentless close-up. But it may now be time for Mia Hansen-Løve to repack her suitcase and knuckle down to it again.
Bergman Island is now showing in selected cinemas.