Mia Hansen-Løve: ‘Bergman Island’

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Writer and director Mia Hansen-Løve Photo by Judicaël Perrin. Courtesy of IFC Films

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes writer and director Mia Hansen-Løve, whose newest film is “Bergman Island” starring Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps. Hansen-Løve’s other films include “All is Forgiven” and “Things to Come.” Hansen-Løve tells The Treatment her films are all very personal but not necessarily autobiographical. She says she did not set out to make a complex film that included a film within a film, but that her process of writing led her to that structure. And she talks about starting the film in the clouds, both literally and metaphorically.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. I am pleased to be joined today by a filmmaker who has a really interesting gift for creating the tensions in intimacy. Her newest film, as writer director, is “Bergman Island.” I'm talking to Mia Hansen-Løve. One of the things I really loved about the movie, which becomes this kind of metaphor, is the scene where Vicky Krieps as Chris has this long search for the house used in "Through a Glass Darkly." That, to me, is almost the center of the movie.

Mia Hansen-Løve: I guess so, but something that I'm sure about is: the film is a quest, like all my films are. In this film, we see people looking for Bergman and his heritage in a way, and that's something that's impossible to capture. But of course, it's not only about that; it's also about a much more intimate quest. They're both trying to write their own stories, and through that, they're both trying to find themselves.

KCRW: It's a movie about storytelling, I think, and the stories that people tell themselves and the stories that people are trying to tell.

Hansen-Løve: Yes, actually, it's not a film about movie making. You don't see shootings; you don't see people on set, you don't see actors acting in the film. So in that sense, it's not a film about movie making, although I do think it's a film about cinema, or at least, how I see it, what it is for me, how it works for me. 

One of the things that made me want to write to make this film was the feeling that I had never seen cinema represented in films in a way that could really connect with what it is for me. I had a feeling there was something here that was a territory that was kind of virgin that had not been explored. That's my own experience of cinema as a script writer and as a filmmaker, but mostly as somebody who's looking for something in the cinema, some somebody who's trying to capture life, basically through cinema. Cinema as being this process, this quest for life, is something I had the feeling that I had never seen on screen, so it was very stimulating for me to try to capture that in a film. Because although there were a lot of films made about cinema, there was no film that I could think of that really represented the process of writing films, of creating, of trying to transform your life into stories in order to find the meaning of it. 

KCRW: It's also about what cinema means to each of these people personally. They both have very different ideas. She hasn't seen a lot of Bergman, and Tony, played by Tim Roth, has seen a lot of Bergman, and they both have very different relationships to him as an artist, and we get to feel who they are by the way they talk about that too.

Hansen-Løve: There is complicity between them. There is affection; there is love; there is a strong bond between them that remains even though, of course, the film obviously shows the distance between them. And this distance probably gets even worse during the film. But still, I do think there is something that survives this. I do agree that we do see in the film that there are a lot of things that make them different in their approach to Bergman. But the film really is about how you still can be in a couple and find some kind of balance even though there is all this distance and things that are impossible to share.

KCRW: That's what a lot of your films are about to me: that kind of distance that can come from a couple or people having very different points of view. But finally, there is affection in these relationships.

Hansen-Løve: That was my hope. My desire when I wrote the film was that although the film of course is about cinema, and these people there are filmmakers and it deals with that and I cannot deny it, I was still hoping that the film will become universal because through that, what I was also really trying to deal with is what it is to be in a relationship and to be in a couple and how the tension between complicity, intimacy, the life you have shared, the fact that you feel so close to the other person also because you have a child together or because you have this artistic connection, and at the same time, how far you can be from one another in a couple. I think that's, in a way, the story of life, you know?

KCRW: I found myself wondering how autobiographical this movie was for you. 

Hansen-Løve: All the films that I've made--I've directed eight now-- they were all very personal. And they were all dealing with things not necessarily that I experienced myself, but sometimes people I had met, people who were gone, people who were close to me.  Sometimes the autobiographical dimension is very obvious, like here, because I represent two directors, I'm a director myself, I have been living with another director. We have had a child. So it's very easy to compare [“Bergman Island”] to my life and think that there is some autobiographical dimension. And, of course, there is, but in a way, there is one in all of my films. It's not necessarily as direct and as frontal as it seems.

KCRW: One of my favorites of your films is "Things to Come," which is also about trying to figure out who you are when you're away from somebody and what your life is going to be. And that's part of Chris's artistic process, too, is trying to figure out who she is. 

Hansen-Løve: Yes, I think many of my films deal with solitude and the necessity of accepting it in order to become an adult. I don't know if I like that word so much.

KCRW: Why not?

Hansen-Løve: I don't know. Because you'll always want to oppose it to childhood, and I still feel so close to childhood in many ways. And I think wanting to stay a child forever, in a way, is why I make films, so it's a little bit contradictory. But I think it's both actually. I think, on the one hand, making films for me is a way to eternally come back to childhood. And maybe it's even why I end the film with a scene with a child. I needed that, I think, to end the film, to have the child in the center finally. On the other hand, of course, my films are also about some kind of wisdom that my characters are looking for, and the necessity of growing up, letting go of certain things.

KCRW: It's this kind of magical start with this playing, kind of cruising through the air, and then we go inside the plane with this turbulence. There's so many things metaphorically going on with this movie.

Hansen-Løve: The idea of starting the film on the plane, in the clouds. Well, there were two things here: first the idea of the fear of flying, which is something I share with Chris, but what interested me here is the fear. It's not so much of flying, but the idea of being afraid as a starting point, because it's really about this woman who finds herself or tried to find herself through fiction. In a way, you can say fiction is the thing that will help her get rid of her fears, so I thought the fear of flying was a good thing to start with. 

The other thing was that I liked the idea of starting in the clouds, like in a dream. There is something that has to do with dreaming for me with that feeling, which makes it quite different from my previous films. They were also realistic in the way I was telling the stories, and they were all portraits of women or men, but they were told in a quite realistic way. And this one, I think, is slightly different and plays more freely with different dimensions between dream and reality. 

KCRW: Tell me about how you chose your actors for the film.

Hansen-Løve: I had Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie in mind from the start for these characters of Amy and Joseph in the film in the film. Mia Wasikowska is an actress I am a huge fan of. There was something about her that I felt very connected to, some kind of emotion and some kind of innocence or, should I say, melancholy that moved me a lot and so even though I didn't know her at all, personally, and she's from Australia, she was the only person I could think of that character. 

And Anders Danielsen Lie is a Norwegian actor whom I had seen long ago for the first time in the film "Oslo, August 31st." Anders is a doctor too, so there's a part of him that feels like a non professional.  I think part of the reason why I like him so much, is that there also is an innocence about him, and he has this quality that I find mostly among non professional actors. 

Vicky Krieps, it's a long story, because actually, it was supposed to be Greta Gerwig in the film. What happened was that she was going to direct this movie at the same time, so actually, she realized she couldn't do both. And so I almost didn't make the film because I had thought of her from the start. But then where I was lucky was that shortly before Greta left the project, I had seen Vicky Krieps in "Phantom Thread." And I fell in love with her. From the very first image of her on screen, I was so impressed by her presence. And so actually, it took me like 24 hours to decide that I could offer her the part and that she could be the director Chris in my film.

KCRW: On the one hand, the movie sounds kind of simple. As it goes on, it becomes more and more dense, but never difficult to follow. I just wonder about this process, if it's easy for you to write these things, having been an actor yourself. 

Hansen-Løve: I was an actress only when I was 16 years old, and it was very short. It was crucial for me--this experience-- because that was the experience that led me to become a filmmaker later, because that was my first experience of being on a set. But no, what I think is special about the film, the process of writing this film is that it was actually very easy and simple, which is quite funny when you think of the fact that the script can seem quite complicated in many ways. I mean, that it gets denser, as you said, but I hope at least that there is a simplicity still, even though there is complexity and different layers and confusion that I'm trying to create. 

It wasn't theoretical or mental, and that's what I found interesting because I think all I was trying to do was to capture what writing was for me in the process of writing and the way I lead my life. I don't know if it's something that is totally conscious or unconscious, but that's the way it works for me is by creating some kind of confusion, where life and fiction really gets mixed, to a point that it brings you to feel some kind of vertigo. So what I wanted to do was to capture that in a film: to find the right form to express that strange process of mixing reality and fiction, present and past, and truth and lies in order to find a greater truth somehow. 

KCRW: Like I was saying, it gets denser and denser, but it's still easy to follow because Chris, Tony, too, and eventually for Amy, they have these very specific goals. They're trying to figure out this thing. There's kind of an emotional through line and emotional story that always works through your movies. And that's pretty much the case here too. 

Hansen-Løve: That's what I mean. What I mean is that it looks complicated, or complex or theoretical, but actually, honestly, it was very emotional the way I wrote it. I was just following something. I had my own quest too while I was writing it, and that led me to that story, and it's not the reverse. It's not like I wanted to make a film in the film and then I found out what I can put in there and what kind of emotion. It's really the emotion and my desire to express what inspiration is for me, what creation is for me, and how you live with that, how you are a woman and a woman in love, and then an artist and how you try to make them cope, and try to make your life work with your life as an artist. 

KCRW: It's also fascinating now watching this movie at a time where we can't see movies in movie theaters anymore, and it was a powerful experience for me. 

Hansen-Løve: Well, maybe because it's really a film about that experience of cinema, actually. The film really tries to deal with that and what cinema means for people who need cinema in their life, people for whom cinema is really an intimate necessity. And it's the case for me. I mean, I'm one of these people who think that cinema saved my life, and I think there are a few people like me, who have this kind of relationship to cinema. So for me, cinema is not just a hobby; it's really an art, a way of living. It's an art of living. It's more than art, actually. So maybe if you had this emotion while you were watching my film, maybe it has to do with the fact that the film actually is about that vital relationship to cinema.



Rebecca Mooney