Nicole Riegel’s debut feature, Holler starring Jessica Barden, is out now in theaters and on demand through IFC Films. She was named one of Variety‘s 10 Directors to Watch in 2020. She served in the military prior to filmmaking and graduated from UCLA’s MFA writing program. She was named one of Filmmaker magazine’s 25 Faces of Independent Film. She has been supported by Sundance through their Screenwriter’s Lab and the Skywalker Sound+Music Lab. (Photo courtesy of Ana Lucia Espinosa.)
When you’re a filmmaker who makes personal films, the lines between art and life are slippery, to say the least. It’s even more the case when you’re the kind of artist who pulls so directly from your own life experiences and dares to be so candid as Mia Hansen-Løve does. I’m writing about her because she’s one of my favorite filmmakers, her filmography needs to be celebrated more than it has been and I think her latest feature, Bergman Island, is her masterpiece to date.
I first saw Hansen-Løve’s debut film, Tout Est Pardonné, years ago and felt a closeness to her voice. Her films feel not only lived in, but also like she lived the emotions of her heroines. Like they are her, and we are them and her. When I first watched her 2011 feature, Goodbye First Love, I finally saw a film that mirrored my own experience with a first love, in its fragility and intensity. Nothing is off base in a Mia Hansen-Løve film when it comes to what’s in the heart of her characters: their joy, feelings of failure, neurosis, heartbreaks, loss. Watching Hansen-Løve’s films often feels like hunkering down and reading another woman’s diary entries. Hansen-Løve doesn’t show us characters at the height of their careers or relationships, she shows us characters who have been left by their husband late in life, like Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie in Things to Come, or are stuck in a creative rut, like Chris (Vicky Krieps) in Bergman Island. We meet them at their most embarrassing and damaged moments and it feels honest.
Honesty isn’t something a lot of people want from their movies, though. Many people want to escape and be entertained, and so do I, but what is entertaining to me is when I can relate and be gripped by the human experience in a movie, whether that be in a character’s actions or even the visual language. An escape into Hansen-Løve’s films is an escape into the world of the European countryside – verandas, rivers, fruit trees. Within that escape into her European countryside there are open wounds and a deep well of loneliness. A loneliness reminiscent of Eric Rohmer’s Le Rayon Vert.
I feel like I’ve grown up with Mia Hansen-Løve. Like each film is a demarcation of that point in the life of a woman, from first kiss to losing a parent. Whether it’s the intensity and messy boundaries between Camille and Sullivan in Goodbye First Love or navigating the death of your mother and life as you knew it in Things to Come, I show up for her films to feel profoundly seen and less alone.
However, Bergman Island affects me even more than her previous work because it is specifically about a filmmaker whose struggles echo my own. In it, Hansen-Løve examines the marriage between two artists who are working on their screenplays. However, in the writing process, the main character, Chris, dips into surrealism when we as an audience watch scenes from her imagination (or arguably, her desires) intercut with real life.
There is a scene where Chris secretly looks at her husband’s screenplay and sees sexually provocative sketches and notes. Is this art or life? From the look on Chris’ face, that’s exactly what she’s wondering as she closes his notebook and tries to forget what she saw. I connected with this scene so much because my partner, Adam Cobb, is also my producer, and he is tasked with reading and watching countless drafts and cuts of my work and looking at it from an objective, almost impersonal perspective. The relationship between two artists can be uniquely fulfilling, but it can also be uniquely painful because, if we’re being completely honest, there is always a curiosity about what is merely art and what is really drawn from real life, real emotions. It’s only natural for that to happen, as I think it would take a superhuman couple to not have to deal with a certain discomfort while examining your partner’s work and wondering if certain aspects are about you.
Unlike in her previous films, in Bergman Island Hansen-Løve plays with the form of cinema itself when Chris’ imaginations play out in a surrealistic way. We see the scenes Chris is thinking about writing; they are moments from her own past, yet she takes dramatic license, further blurring the lines between art and life. These lines are so blurred that by the film’s end, we aren’t sure where art ends and life begins for Chris. I think it’s always exciting to see a filmmaker’s growth and watch them do something new while maintaining their singular voice; that’s what Hansen-Løve is doing with Bergman Island.
As a filmmaker whose protagonists feel misunderstood and cast out by society, I deeply connect to and feel seen by Mia Hansen-Løve’s films and I feel inspired to create that same intimacy and vulnerability in the women she portrays onscreen. We are in a time when “strong female leads” are in vogue, but what I think that has really come to mean is women mimicking traditional American male behavior – sports, physical work, tough language – and viewing as weak what has long been considered feminine: emotions, love, relationship stories. To me, what makes a strong female lead is a rendering of a rich, complex and nuanced character, not the rejection of a specific gender.
Vicky embodies such a character: she works in a male-dominated field as a filmmaker whilst being a mother, but imbues her work – as Hansen-Løve herself does – with vulnerability, crafting intimate portraits of the human experience. Hansen-Løve costumes the character of Chris androgynously, often in earthy colors, button-down shirts and baggy sweaters.
While Bergman Island may be my favorite Hansen-Løve film so far, I want everyone to discover and celebrate the deeply intimate tapestry this filmmaker is weaving and be as inspired by it as I have been. Each film is an astonishingly relatable piece that makes up the whole mosaic of a woman’s existence.
Featured image: (left) Mia Hansen-Løve as shot by Judicaël Perrin, courtesy IFC Films; (right) Isabelle Huppert in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come.