Ayellow bus​ takes tourists around a remote island to visit sites associated with a great director’s life and work. Another director takes this location as the setting for a troubled and troubling film about screenwriting. We are watching Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest film but one, Bergman Island (2021). Reality serves as a film historian without help from anyone except the inventors of the tour, but surely Hansen-Løve, who wrote and directed the movie, is going too far when she has the words ‘Bergman Safari’ painted on the side of the bus. What does it mean to topple Africa into Sweden this way? I don’t know the answer, and probably Hansen-Løve doesn’t either, since she too is asking the question. (She didn’t invent the bus or its signage, and you can read all about the tour on Tripadvisor.)

Reality makes other interesting contributions to film history. The tour includes a view of the place where Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961) was shot, though the house isn’t there anymore and all the indoor scenes were filmed in a studio. We and the tourists are looking at an earthly plot that leaves all the data to our imagination. At least we didn’t have to take the train and the ferry to start the programme.

With these thoughts of what is there and what isn’t, of what a carefully photographed world may show of what is not to be seen, we are already tracking something of what goes on in Hansen-Løve’s films, from All Is Forgiven (2007) to One Fine Morning (2022). It’s not incidental that she graduated from acting in films to writing about them to directing them. Several of her titles have elements of the island effect, a touch of speculation lurking behind what seems to be just a statement. Forgiven, really? Will that morning ever come? Is there such a thing as the future? (L’Avenir is the French title of Things to Come from 2016.) Where exactly is Eden (2014)?

Bergman Island, while a little rambling and obvious at times, has a wonderful device that helps us to think about what we could call the theoretical aspect of seemingly solid things and situations. Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) are on a working holiday, each trying to complete a draft of a screenplay. Chris fears the overdetermined setting may be ‘too nice’, and Tony says: ‘No one’s expecting Persona.’ Chris speaks for many of Hansen-Løve’s characters when she admits, late in the film, ‘I haven’t found an ending.’

The device appears when Chris tells Tony the story of the film she is writing. They walk through fields and woods, and her voiceover narrative is full of alternatives, what she may or may not want her characters to do or say, but we see the film as if it were already made. It’s about two people who had an affair when young and meet up again in order to fail to beget a sequel. In a very elegant invention, when Chris is lingering in what used to be Bergman’s house, she meets the actor we have seen playing the man in the as yet unmade movie. He’s just a tourist at this point, but it’s very hard to take him out of the film that is both real (for us) and still hypothetical (for Chris).

Things to Come and One Fine Morning have a good deal in common. Both focus on a lonely woman whose mother or father has succumbed to dementia and won’t come back. But their moods and movements are different. In the earlier film Isabelle Huppert is Nathalie, a late middle-aged philosophy teacher in Paris. She is tough and lively and has no patience with the protesters outside her school campaigning against the proposed change in the French retirement age. She’s funny too, but a bit too brusque and self-contained, as we realise when she announces to herself that she is not to be pitied. Of course not. When after 25 years of marriage her husband leaves her for another woman, she asks him why he didn’t just get on with his double life and keep quiet about it. One of her chief complaints after he has gone is that he has taken with him her copies of the works of Emmanuel Levinas. She herself almost has an affair with a former student, but manages not to, and becomes, perhaps, the person she used to think she was, only more human. Huppert gets all this across in amazing ways, and Hansen-Løve backs her up with some very sharp editing. When Nathalie learns of her mother’s death, we see her take a phone call but don’t hear what she hears. When she takes a taxi to the care home where her mother lived, we see her get into the vehicle, and in the next shot she sits in a church office arranging a funeral.

One Fine Morning is much more concerned with disarray. Sandra (Léa Seydoux) is a simultaneous translator, an expert in the words of others, and is constantly worried about almost everything that isn’t her work. Her father (Pascal Greggory), a German who has lived in France for a long time, formerly a philosophy teacher at a university, is suffering from Benson’s syndrome, and the film opens memorably with her unable to get into his flat: he can’t find the door, let alone the key that will open it. She talks him through the steps he needs to take. Later we see her studying his notebook, written during the onset of the disease, and containing many phrases that register the lucidity he is soon to lose: ‘The illness is punishing me in what I love most: reading.’ In the same notebook we read the words ‘An einem schönen Morgen’, one fine morning, an expression, in this context, of untenable hope.

This is not where the movie is headed, though. The main plot concerns Sandra’s meeting up with an old friend, now married, and the start-stop-start affair she has with him. He is Clément (Melvil Poupaud), and although she calls him an astrophysicist he keeps reminding her that he is a cosmochemist, a collector and analyser of astral dust. Apart from their professions, the affair is rather predictable as narrative material, and the fumbling embraces that mark their meetings suggest at first that Hansen-Løve has either run out of ideas or doesn’t like to film this kind of stuff. But then we realise: the ineptness is the heart of the topic. Sandra and Clément are no good at infidelity and sex for the sake of it. She says she doesn’t want to be his mistress, but what else can she be? He doesn’t want to leave his wife, but then he does. And doesn’t.

Time passes, neatly signalled by changes in clothing. Coats and scarves arrive, linger, and then are gone again. Sandra’s father, no longer able to live alone, stays in a series of nightmare hospices, and his condition gets worse and worse. Sandra’s daughter develops a limp, though a doctor says there is nothing wrong with her leg. The implication is that her body, if not her mind, has understood, or thinks it has understood, that people will really care for you, or devote their time to you, only if you are damaged.

Is there a way out of this? Probably not. Are there ways of living with these conditions? Yes, lots. Some of them are awful, but others less so. This is what the film goes on to show. I won’t describe the late scenes, partly because it would be a spoiler, and partly because, as Hansen-Løve’s style and interests suggest, any narrative solution is one option among several. That is the force of the other meaning of the film’s title: not hoping against hope, or believing in luck, but living through the long morning of what we don’t know about ourselves.

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