Mia Hansen-Løve understands the inner workings of a woman’s mind like few other filmmakers. But she also understands the emotional intelligence of a filmmaker like few others working today – and finds the best people to help her communicate this. Her latest star, Vicky Krieps, sits down with Lillian Crawford to detail the workings of Hansen-Løve’s film sets and the truth of being a woman in a male-dominated film industry.
Vicky Krieps can’t remember which film by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman she saw first. “I watched this movie but I was too young. Something in there was too much for me. I think it’s probably because I am a woman.” I know what she means – Bergman can be hard to connect with as a female viewer. But as our conversation, and the film Bergman Island which Krieps recently made with Mia Hansen-Løve, elucidates, there are parts of Bergman’s filmography which can also resonate strongly with women.
The dissonance between the minds of men and women fascinates Hansen-Løve. In her 2011 film Goodbye, First Love, Lola Créton’s Camille negotiates her desires for a naïve boy her own age and an older professor. In the end she lets both men go, dropping the younger’s hat into a river as she embraces her independence. Bergman never tied himself to a single partner – why should the same freedoms not be extended to women?
Camille is reminiscent of Harriet Andersson’s title character in Bergman’s Summer With Monika from 1953, not only in physical resemblance but in their scenes of silent thinking. Bergman and Hansen-Løve allow Andersson and Créton to perform quietly, leaving enigmatic thoughts to connect with a knowing audience and elude those who cannot understand. One of the finest shots in Bergman’s filmography sees Andersson sit back with a cigarette and exhale through her nose as she stares deep into the camera’s soul, the screen darkening around her.
A similar effect is achieved by Krieps in Bergman Island – a film set almost entirely on the Swedish island of Fårö where Bergman lived and worked for much of his life. Like Monika, Chris, the filmmaker played by Krieps, is often left to her thoughts as she potters about the paths and shores of Fårö, with more restraint and realism than Bergman showed as a director.
“The strength of women is that because men don’t give us much space we learn to escape in our minds. You let go and then you become free,” Krieps says of how different it can be to play a creative woman in an environment dominated by men. Chris spends Bergman Island contending both with the legacy of Bergman and the masculine culture which holds up her husband, Tony (Tim Roth), who screens one of his giallo-lite psycho-sexual horrors at the island’s Bergman Centre.
Krieps draws clear parallels between Chris and her own experience of working in the film industry: “There’s both a coldness and closeness I’ve felt around male creation sometimes. Because it’s often egotistical and when you’re on the outside it feels harsh, it doesn’t feel warm or welcoming.” When Chris is talking to Tony about the screenplay she has been working on, he seems distant, at one point taking a phone call when she most needs him to give her validation.
That validation came to Krieps, as an actor, from Hansen-Løve. The first time they spoke, the director was staying at Bergman’s house on Fårö having applied for a residence offered to scholars and artists of all calibres, an experience which gave shape to the themes Hansen-Løve wanted to explore in her first English-language project. She originally cast Greta Gerwig as Chris, having worked with her in DJ-focused epic Eden in 2014, but also as the “director-wife” of the more established filmmaker Noah Baumbach, her personal life could have lent an element of autobiography to her performance.
Hansen-Løve approached Krieps after seeing her in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, a film similarly about the creative process and the abuse of a female muse. It was a process Krieps found challenging, caught between Daniel Day-Lewis who “had his own process, which is very closed”, and the meticulous directorial style of Anderson. Krieps draws a clear contrast between the production of that film and working on Bergman Island, and the value of being allowed to play a woman who creates, rather than existing solely as inspiration to a man.
Like Harriet Andersson’s fixed gaze at the end of Summer With Monika, Hansen-Løve saw in Krieps an ability to communicate without speaking that is so central to all of her films. Be that Isabelle Huppert’s wandering philosophy professor in 2016’s Things to Come or the more youthful protagonists of Goodbye, First Love and Maya in 2018, the extended periods of silence in Hansen-Løve’s films are often the scenes most enriched with meaning and meditation.
For Bergman Island, Hansen-Løve wanted someone who could communicate the autobiographical elements of her script. Krieps recalls that Hansen-Løve “was reaching out because she saw something in me that I carry which she also carries about the struggle of being an artist and trying to find your voice.” This was an element of Chris’s character and the film itself which the pair worked on together for a year, shooting all the scenes without Tony and channelling Hansen-Løve’s feelings through Krieps without the intervention of men.
“The next year with Tim Roth, immediately it became difficult. Part of that was Mia now had to work with a male actor, who found it difficult having to accept a woman younger than him telling him what to do,” Krieps says. “He was ‘only the husband’, which for Tim was a challenge, whereas as women you’re used to being told, ‘You’ve got the female lead!’ and you’re only needed on set for two days! Men are not yet accustomed to it, so I became a sort of translator between Mia and Tim, which is often a woman’s role, mediating between different energies like that.”
It’s refreshing to acknowledge the complex dynamics at play, and the biases, conscious or otherwise, from seasoned male actors working with women in positions of creative control. The disjunction between Tony and Chris in Bergman Island was not simply a product of acting, but a real insight into the impact gender has on a film set.
Those dynamics jarr beautifully with the setting of Fårö and the biography of Ingmar Bergman himself. There are several direct winks in Bergman Island which call attention to this – the most amusing of which is Chris purchasing a replica of the sunglasses Bibi Andersson wore in 1966’s Persona. On one level, that film is about the “uncanny resemblance” Bergman observed in two of his ‘muses’, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, which he captured in a merged shot of their faces. Persona shows how Bergman’s fascination with the female psyche remained elusive to him, but the freedom given to Ullmann and Andersson in their performances is what gives a way in for women and the veil of Andersson’s sunglasses allows her, and Chris, to keep possession of their own thoughts, hidden from men.
Reflecting on this tongue-in-cheek parallel, I ask Krieps how much importance was placed on Bergman as influence to the film and her own performance: “[Mia] wouldn’t say, ‘This is now a scene which is like Bergman’, but she knew how to invite us into a certain style and pace which felt very respectful to Fårö and to Bergman. It felt like Bergman was present, but it was never said.”
Krieps describes her own method of acting as “trying to stay away from anything that might lead to the illusion that I think I know what I’m doing.” While she revisited Bergman’s films, the actor never wanted to mimic Bibi Andersson or Liv Ullmann, nor did she want to play Hansen-Løve herself despite the autobiographical script. There’s a detachment at play throughout Bergman Island, with the need for women to exist and create apart from men that is so often suffocated by heritage. Krieps admits: “When I work with men, very often I don’t say a word and I sit there and smile but inside I’m going away. And I know that the audience will follow me.”
Bergman Island is in UK and Irish cinemas now and streams exclusively on MUBI from July 22. Book tickets here.