process art vibes: Bergman Island, The Souvenir pt. II, and Succession
on bergman island, the souvenir part ii, process art, and autofiction
Vicky Krieps as Chris in Bergman Island, directed by Mia-Hansen-Løve
Recently, I’ve watched two films about filmmaking. Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II. The films themselves are autobiographical, but more than anything, they felt autofictional. But that might just be an artifact of film’s effect. It’s hard not to take film literally, its objects and people not mere analogs or representational stand-ins, but the objects and people themselves. With a novel, even with autofiction, one assumes that the field of the fiction will work on the subjects of the story such that nothing is actually as it happened. But a film presents such a plausible reality—I don’t mean in its plot or events. I mean, the very patina of reality in film feels real to me. Like I am looking directly through some magic sliver of the universe into someone else’s life and circumstances. Film is continuous with my terrible habit of inventing stories for people I see on the street, such that most films to me feel like people watching.
But particularly these two films, though perhaps The Souvenir Part II is the only one that is actually autofiction. Hogg’s follow-up to 2019’s The Souvenir returns to find Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) pretty much where the last film left off: dealing with the surprise death of her boyfriend Anthony. For much of the first film, Julie had been very unaware of Anthony’s heroin addiction even as their relationship deteriorated. He stole from her, lied to her, acted in ways secret and mysterious. He was changeful, sometimes charming and other times violent. The Souvenir Part II deals with Julie’s acceptance that there were things about Anthony that she simply did not know, and she deals with alternating shame and guilt at her naivety.
Julie is an aspiring filmmaker in film school, and like many artists recently traumatized by a harrowing personal event, she decides to focus her thesis film on her relationship with Anthony. When she turns in the treatment and script to her advisors, they berate her for its lack of professional presentation. It doesn’t look like a script, they say. They also articulate some anxiety about the substance of the proposed project. It is a series of vignettes and images, more akin to tone poetry than what they consider film. They give her an ultimatum: change the project to be more in-line with what they consider film or they simply will not support her in the making of it. Meaning mostly that she would have to support the project out of her own pocket. Which really means out of her parents’ pockets—they are wealthy and have a country estate. Julie is presented with the choice that many young artists face: alter the strange, poetic nature of their vision or stop making art. Because of her family’s resources, Julie gets a third way. She gets to continue her project though without the blessing of her department. It is important to her to tell this story. Not for anyone else’s benefit but her own. It’s the solipsism of youth.
Julie is an analog for the director Joanna Hogg, who said during interview at the screening I attended that she had gone back and looked at journals and bits of film from that time. She had relied on memory to tell the story of this harrowing relationship. As Julie embarks on her journey to make the film, we see her grapple with the responsibility of being a writer/director. She struggles in this role. Surly crewmembers revolt under her aimless direction. They want structure. But all she can offer them is vibes and feelings. Gestures. The scenes in which she tries to direct the actors who are tasked with recreating her relationship with Anthony were exquisitely awkward and funny, but more than anything quite painful. Because we could see her watching this alternate version of herself. The actors, seeking information on which to build their portrayals, ask Julie pointed questions about what she knew, what she didn’t know, how couldn’t she know.
It reminded me of a time in workshop when someone had brought in something clearly autofictional and we as a class took it apart in this terrifying cold, clinical way. Who was this character? Why was she such a specter in her own life? Why did she not know these basic things about this person who had been cruel to her? The more we talked about the story, the meaner the questions became. Or, I guess, they seemed mean because it was like watching someone be screwed ever tighter into a torture device of their own making. It’s hard to see yourself clearly, even when you’re writing about it. Sometimes, it’s only clear to others and only at a remove. Those scenes with Julie and the actors in her recreated bedroom, the camera beaming in on them, as if a voyeur, as they walked through some of the more harrowing moments from Julie and Anthony’s relationship were painful. So difficult. And yet, so achingly familiar to anyone who has made their life into art and had it picked apart.
The thing about surviving a difficult relationship via the magic thinking of protective self-delusion is that even the most basic logical questions can shred your defenses. It’s a delicate structure made of spun sugar, and even the slightest pressure can unmake it and unmake you in the process. You realize, sometimes only after you’ve handed the thing in, that you’ve exposed yourself in this terrible way, and you can’t answer even the most basic questions about the what and the why, and you feel that there are these great blanks and gaps in your story, in your life. It’s a disorienting feeling, realizing how you’ve redacted yourself.
One of the real treats of The Souvenir Part II, apart from its casual beauty and dry wit, is that nested in the film, we get Julie’s graduation film in its entirety. It is a visual collage of sorts that has a Jarmanian vibe about it. Julie moving through a series of tableaux, chasing Anthony, trying to get to him but never quite succeeding. There’s this delightful moment where she’s in a coat following him down a long foggy street that was just stunning. Julie’s graduation film coalesces around a sense, a feeling, of never quite knowing the person you love. How their loss, despite their cruelty and aloofness and pain, can still cut a vivid channel through your life. And how resolution very seldom has anything to do with human relationships. It ends with Julie coming back to herself, taking up her camera and turning it outward, finally resolved in the knowledge that this is her vocation.
Parallel to her creative struggles, there is the struggle of wanting to find love again. We see her trying to date. Having sex with a beautiful but pretentious actor. There is a scene in which he goes down on her during her period and then kisses her, and you see the blood on both of their mouths. It doesn’t work out. Later, she tries to pick up her film editor, played (to my personal elation) by Joe Alwyn whose feathered hair and open-collar shirt made me wonder why he doesn’t appear in more movies set in the 80s and 90s. Also to my elation, he turns out to be gay in a complicated relationship with a man I believe is dying of AIDS. I found this storyline—Julie wheeling about trying to put her life back together—really moving. It’s hard, when you’ve been leveled by someone who was manipulative and secretive, to get over the anesthetized twilight of a toxic dynamic. You grow so accustomed to the bad air that when you’re free of it, it’s like getting oxygen poisoning.
In The Souvenir, Julie was childlike and innocent. She had grand ideals and pretensions about what really mattered. She had that bourgeois interest in working class lives and wanting to turn working class people into art objects. Things on which to build great aesthetic theories. Anthony was a perfect trap for her then. He affected a wealthy exterior. Government job. Secret business. Travels. He was older and mature. We know how that ended. In The Souvenir Part II, we see Julie a little older and wiser, but still not without her naivety. This film is lighter, for sure, and can at times feel flimsy. Most of its energy is directed at the film within the film. But still, Julie joins a recent cohort of messy girl-women with real problems: Fleabag, Chewing Gum, Frances Ha, Girls, etc. Of course, the irony is that Julie predates them. I imagine what it might have been like had the women in those shows and films had Julie’s films to grow up with.
Bergman Island presents a different kind of template for the lady dirtbag. The film opens with a couple, Chris (Vicky Krieps!!!) and Tony (Tim Roth) going to the island of Faroe, longtime muse and home of the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Chris and Tony are both writers and filmmakers. Tony is older and seems, at least for the duration of the film, more self-assured and established in his career. For Chris, the writing process is arduous and painful. In this spare, beautiful Scandinavian setting, Chris struggles to find and shape the story she wants to tell. She grows frustrated with Tony’s seeming ability to just reel off pages and pages of material and to spout off on masterclass panels. She leaves one of his events early and hangs out with a stranger. Later, they have a tense argument about writing.
Chris says that she feels as though she’s just telling the same story over and over, and she doesn’t want to repeat herself. Tony tells her something like, we’re always saying the same thing over and over. Just from different perspectives. This does not comfort her. The writing is oppressive. But later, she gets something going and tells the story to Tony.
It’s at this point that Bergman Island switches. As Chris narrates the story, we watch it unfold. Amy (played by Mia Wasikowska!!!!) is an American director who is going to Faroe for a friend’s wedding, where she meets an old lover Josef (Anders Danielsen Lie). They immediately fall back into old habits, and it is revealed that they both have partners. Amy has a child. Their rekindling of the dalliance is destructive and foolish and childish, but they cannot help themselves. Later, Josef leaves her again, goes back to his life, and Amy is left shattered.
Chris says that she doesn’t have an ending for the story, and then we see her within the realm of her own story. She takes over for Amy and she goes to the Bergman house, further blending the fiction of the film and the fiction of the film within the film. Things get slightly more confusing from there as we then see Chris and the actor who plays Josef, Anders, talking about the movie and later seeming to share an intimate moment. Then, Tony returns with his and Chris’s child, June, to the house where they are staying.
It’s a strange, braided film with multiple fictional threads. There is Bergman Island, the Hansen-Løve film. And then there is Chris’s film. And then there is the fiction of seeing Chris engaging with the crew and set of her film, so the making of that film. And then we seem to return to the first setting. And what to make of the relationship between Anders and Chris? There’s this moment early in the movie when Chris says that she would like to have nine children by five different men like Ingmar Bergman, and Tony says “Oh that’s nice.” And as she tells Tony about her idea for a film, Tony says that he isn’t the one to talk about this with. Meaning the subject matter of Amy, in love with two men at once, raising a child with one while longing for the other, is perhaps not ideal for the two of them to talk about. So then, that intimate moment between Anders and Chris in the cabin at the end of shooting, takes on a new resonance.
Or maybe it’s true that the film is supposed to just wash over you, and you aren’t meant to try to unpick it and make sense of it. Maybe it’s just one of those things, alternate layers of fact and fiction spread out over the delicate frame of a plot. And what is interesting in it isn’t necessarily what is true and what it is not, but the overall effect. How the film comments upon itself even as it coils and spirals inward. Maybe it’s enough just to say that the film is about trying to tell a difficult story in art, and how sometimes the only way to get it right is via collage and vignette, nested stories. Perhaps things are only true in the three-dimensional structure of a story. When things pile up and push on each other.
The other thing I love about Bergman Island is that is a movie of objects. The scratch of their fountain pens. The creasing of paper. The beautiful lambskins. The gorgeous landscapes. Trees in the wind. Dunes. Jellyfish. The swirl of water. The last little sip of red wine in the glass. The crack of fire. The shelves and shelves of books. The gorgeous architecture. And, also, the slosh of water over rocks. The dry grass. The sounds of their shoes going up the old stairs. Or doors clacking shut. I loved, too, the way they talked about Bergman’s movies. Chris has this great line where she says that she likes coherence and she doesn’t like it when artists she loves are bad in their lives, meaning, I think, Bergman’s inattentiveness to his family life. I love movies that talk about art. I love all art that comments on the making of art. I love process art.
Bergman Island, particularly the first half of it, is wry and knowing about the kind of boring, terrible people you meet on a Bergman Safari—all their droning connoisseurship and tedious self-importance. It was one of those things that felt true about all kinds of artmaking. At least the public facing part of it. When the art becomes less important than the performance of one’s knowledge about the art. The sniffy intellectualization of things that you enjoy. How things can’t just be fun, but must be parsed and turned into a part of our deep spiritual craving for mimetic guidance.
Plus, the fountain pens! I went out and immediately bought some. I am now a person who uses fountain pens.
I do think that the structure of the movie, while interesting to ponder, was also a weakness. My friend Garth said that he was unsure why the movie kept trying to escape the interesting dramatic questions it set up for itself. And I agree with that. There was for sure a desire of the film to slip by dramatically enacting its concerns by turning to an intertext. And then by not resolving any of the incoherence or resonances between the text and the intertext. And, like, yeah, that is a thing you can do. I mean, postmodernism, etc. But for such an earnest movie, it made me wonder why, tho? Like, in a movie that seems so deeply interested in excavating relationships and laying them out in interesting ways, raising questions about how to balance family and art, love and art, competitiveness and love, and etc, why turn away from that to create an intertext that is also interested in those things, but then not further explore them?
I’m not sure it’s a particularly courageous film, though it is a beautiful one, and I enjoyed it. I’ve seen it twice now. I love Vicky Krieps, who is perfect and amazing, and plays her role with a warm aloofness. You don’t ever quite feel that you can read her mind, but she’s not cold. Tim Roth’s Tony is likeable and you can tell he was having a lot of fun putting on his director on a panel voice. Their chemistry was totally natural and easy, fun to watch. The film has a lot of charm and it’s light on its feet. It moves swiftly. And makes such beautiful images that you sometimes forget you are watching a movie.
And perhaps it’s enough to leave the film with questions. Maybe that’s the best thing a film can do. I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it.
I know that writers hate books and stories about writers. But I love stories about writers. I mean, where I find them tedious is when the author tries to make them something more than they are. It’s the same thing with most recent bourgeois art. I think of it as the “writing about 2016 in 2021” vibe. That is, all the white liberals are writing these tedious excoriating stories about their friends from five years ago. And it’s so bland. Like, okay, you’re critiquing the optimism of white people when they voted for Obama and felt comfortable. That wink wink “aren’t white progressives so racist, lol,” gesture of contemporary fiction. I used to think that I wanted white people to write about white people in a way that suggested they knew white people were white. But now, I think that’s a mistake. Because white people don’t actually have anything interesting to say in their fiction about being white. They don’t know anything about it.
That’s a kind of chaotic idea, I know. But hear me out. This recent pivot in literary fiction among our white liberal brethren, sistren, and theythren is really bad. It was better when they were writing about affairs and the peril of the immortal human soul. When they were writing about people instead of political abstractions. I have read, recently, a novel that is so bad in its bland political affect that I routinely thought, “How is this allowed?” I won’t name the novel because it’s not the novel that’s important. It’s the bad posturing that matters here.
I just feel like. If you are going to write about writers, then write about writers. Don’t write about writers feeling reflexive guilt over being writers. Don’t write about needy, craven white people who are “aware of their privilege” if you don’t have anything interesting to say. If all you have are slogans and tedious winky references to woke white behavior, then, like, I don’t know, fam, maybe write about something else. To me, that’s the real corrosive thing about fiction about writers. Everyone wants so desperately to portray that they are aware of the problems and pitfalls, that they are so attuned to their privilege, hand over the heart, etc., that they forget to write actual compelling fiction about human people in human situations. I hate books written in apology for their subject matter.
Anyway, I bring all of this up because I was thinking that writers say they hate stories about writers. But film people seem to enjoy films about filmmaking. Even the ones that suck. That’s why Succession is so beloved while a show like Billions, which is better in terms of its writing and acting, is considered more niche. Succession is media about media, and there is nothing the media loves more than something that comments upon the media. I think it’s also easy to see the free exchange between Succession and the social media ecosystem built around it. It’s a classic construction of a piece of media and its fandom. A feedback loop of influence.
But if someone were to write a story or a novel about the same material of Succession, no one would care. They simply would not. They would be annoyed. And that’s because of that thing I was talking about earlier. The patina of reality. Visual storytelling arrives with a feeling of secure existence. The index of refraction, so to speak, is much closer to that of our own reality. Whereas, well, the index of refraction for literature. You get it.
But that’s probably overthinking it. We live in an era of vibes. And as long as you’re vibing, that’s all that matters. Long live the vibe.