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Vicky Krieps on cows, ‘female acting’ and Bergman Island

The actress discusses her meta role in Mia Hansen-Løve’s smart, lyrical new film, Bergman Island. ‘I like to be surprised,’ she tells Nick Chen. ‘As long as I stay curious, I know I’m alive’

Fårö Island was once known as Bergman Island. From 1967 until his death in 2003, Ingmar Bergman lived on Fårö, a 113-km-square piece of land north of Sweden, and shot numerous films on its desolate landscape. But after the release of Mia Hansen-Løve’s smart, lyrical Bergman Island, the island will have to rename itself Bergman Island Island. Where once Fårö was synonymous with Persona and Through a Glass Darkly, visitors will now recognise landmarks connected to Hansen-Love’s seventh feature. Here’s where Vicky Krieps cycled through the rain! Here’s where Mia Wasikowska danced to ABBA!

Or could Fårö be retitled Chris’s Island? After all, Bergman Island – originally titled My Fårö – is the tale of how a filmmaker, Chris (Krieps), dreams up a film in Bergman’s neighbourhood. Spending a summer with a moniker, Chris visits Fårö with her husband, Tony (Tim Roth), and imagines that she’s another woman, Amy, roaming the vicinity. In a film-within-a-film, we witness Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) as a fractured couple acting out Chris’s emotions and speaking Chris’s dialogue, all in the same locations as Chris’s writing retreat.

Presumably Krieps is playing Hansen-Løve? “Mia makes movies about her own life,” the 38-year-old Luxembourgish actor tells me over Zoom from Cologne, with her children running around in the background. “Mia Wasikowska is also her, and I am her. We are all Mia. We didn’t talk about it but I did think about it sometimes. She felt like a sister to me, Mia Hansen-Løve. We have the same approach to life.”

Originally, Bergman Island was meant to star Greta Gerwig and John Turturro. When Gerwig dropped out to direct Little Women, Hansen-Løve immediately recast Krieps as Chris, having recently watched Phantom Thread. However, Turturro (and his replacement, Owen Wilson) also left the project, meaning that the film was shot in 2018 and, once Roth was cast, in 2019. Krieps thus shot her 2018 scenes not knowing who would play her husband. “It was helpful. For a year, I could be free of this idea of: what is the dynamic about? I like to be surprised. As long as I stay curious, I know I’m alive.”

Whereas Tony works quickly, confidently, and often shifting genres for personal amusement, Chris operates internally. However, more nuances are at play. On his laptop, Tony edits a finished screenplay on Microsoft Word, not Final Draft; meanwhile, Chris sluggishly taps out an outline on an unsaved Word document. “Knowing Mia, nothing is not thought of,” says Krieps. “He’s the control freak – his Word is saved – and she’s an example of free creativity, dreaming away her movie, not knowing how to sit down and write. I suppose that’s why it’s unsaved. At the beginning, it’s a weakness, but actually she’s just freer in her mind.” (We’re less clear on why Tony uses Microsoft Word instead of Final Draft, but we theorise that Tony is behind the times – or like Paul Thomas Anderson.)

“Chris, who’s typically female, struggles with getting rid of this thing where you always want to please, fit in, and make others feel good,“ she continues, “and she has to accept that she has a different work process. She will find her movie by dreaming it, and not by having a certain way of working, or using a certain computer thing. I think many women have to find this freedom, to let go of trying to fit into the male understanding.”

When it comes to Oscar season, it’s usually male actors with the ostentatious, self-serving anecdotes. Is it a similar dynamic in the performance space? “I think female acting is different than male acting. Often, as a female actor, I feel like I’m serving the man, to bring the delicacy, and to create a space and energy that can bring about emotions. In Phantom Thread, I’m in the space of a man, maybe, but I go away – I dream away, like Chris is dreaming away. I’m sitting there, smiling. But internally, I’m leaving the room, and sometimes I feel like the audience is leaving with me.”

In interviews, Hansen-Løve has denied that Bergman Island is about her former relationship with Olivier Assayas. However, you could watch Assayas’s terrific filmography, even the many films about filmmaking, and learn little about him as a person. Similarly, Tony – whose next film sounds like Personal Shopper – seems careful not to reveal too much of himself. A possible exception is Assayas’s Non-Fiction, a 2018 meta-comedy in which a man discovers his younger girlfriend has been faking her Bergman knowledge. A conspiracy theorist could detect a dialogue – or perhaps an argument – between these two films. Or is this the wrong way to experience art?

“We are our lives, and she has lived with him,” Krieps says. “So he must be in the movie. She didn’t intentionally make the movie about him, or create a character after his model. But out of her life story, everything that has happened to her has somehow influenced the movie… There’s always a dialogue between our private life and our work; between the work of one person and the other person, even unconsciously.”

Bergman, I note, was openly autobiographical in his movies. One could thus create a portrait of the man behind Cries & Whispers, Shame, and Summer with Monika. It doesn’t mean you’d go for a beer with him, though. “I can’t say I don’t like his films,” Krieps says. “But I can’t say I like him. I don’t know him, of course, but there’s something about his films that makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t know if I like watching his movies because it feels like I’m studying something, or if I actually enjoy watching them.”

“There’s something about [Ingmar Bergman’s] films that makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t know if I like watching his movies because it feels like I’m studying something, or if I actually enjoy watching them” – Vicky Krieps

When I speak to Krieps, it’s the end of May, and she’s shooting Bachmann & Frisch, in which she’s playing another writer, Ingeborg Bachmann (I initially mishear it as Ingmar Bergman). A few days earlier, she won an acting prize at Cannes for Corsage, a film so acclaimed that IndieWire’s festival round-up was titled: “Who Won Big at Cannes, from Triangle of Sadness to Vicky Krieps”.

“The whole stupid thing of the carpet and pictures – I don’t care. It’s about the art.” Krieps, who’s an executive producer on Corsage, came up with the idea herself. “Corsage, again, is a woman in a corset – a social corset, a mental corset, her marriage and motherhood being a corset – who’d like to write, but she’s not getting this freedom as an Empress in her time. She has to escape internally, in the same way (as Bergman Island), but in a time when there was no escape. The end is very different but she’s struggling with the same thing.”

Corsage, based on reviews, showcases Krieps’s unpredictability and fascinating oddness, a strength that was obvious in Phantom Thread, Old, and – perhaps her best performance – The Chambermaid Lynn. In Bergman Island, too, Krieps conveys such a palpable sense of spontaneity and self-discovery, you wish there was a tourist hotspot that radiates her energy. So when I ask if Vicky Krieps Island exists, I get a very Vicky Krieps answer. “No,” she says, smiling. “But I think if you wanted to feel what it’s like in Vicky’s shoes, you just have to go in a field with cows, and smell cow shit.”

Bergman Island is in UK cinemas on June 3