“The Uterus and the American Dream.” Art-Making and Domestic Labor in Bergman Island
Mira Ptacin on Mia Hansen-Løve’s New Film
The word that finally came to mind was “accommodating.”
It was just this morning, the day after an epic windstorm that had shut down the only ferry to the island on which I live because the Atlantic’s waves had reached menacing heights. My deaf hound dog, Huckleberry, was antsy, barking at me incessantly as I tried to write, so I huffed, closed my laptop, and took him on a walk in the woods to investigate the wind damage. His leash tugging me down the trail, I slipped and skidded, slammed my shin on a large broken birch branch, and that’s when the word hit me. Accommodating. I cursed it aloud. So damn accommodating!
For several days I’d been trying to gather my thoughts on Mia Hansen-Løve’s gracefully complex film Bergman Island (2021). It’s a story of two filmmakers, Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth)—unmarried but partnered with a young daughter—who take an artist retreat to Fårö Island of the Baltic Sea, the transcendental island where Ingmar Bergman once lived, created, and, in 2007, died (and where artists can take residencies still).
Chris and Tony have arrived to work on their own screenplays. Him: immediately upon arriving, rapidly begins to plot out his next film project. Her: explores the island first, takes the temperature of things. Soon, Chris realizes she’s got a case of writer’s block, whatever that is. As she flops down on her bed and flounders, Tony effortlessly punches away at the keyboard, able to bang out his art like another day at the office. This seems to annoy Chris, yet she’s tolerant (particularly when, while procrastinating with her own work, she flips through Tony’s sketchbook, chock-full of his ideas as well as drawings of naked women bound and gagged—all “inspirations” for his celebrated horror films). In another scene, Chris confides her artistic block to Tony, and he offers suggestions: take a break, go do something else. Perhaps become a housewife, a noble profession. It doesn’t help.
I’d watched Bergman Island from a hotel room during a weekend retreat to Lubec, Maine, one of the most eastern points in the United States, having broke free from my two children for the first time in nearly five weeks to decompress, hike a little, write a little, sleep. It was a belated Christmas present. Bergman Island was the first film I’d watched for months that wasn’t G-rated. I’d been asked to write a response to the film (which I loved) because of my current book project: an exploration of alternative homemaking subcultures, feminist co-ops past and present, and how the nuclear family is no longer serving us. It’s about the idea of socializing domestic duties, those which typically and historically fall upon women. This topic keeps me up at night.
And yet, having viewed Bergman Island entirely uninterrupted, having had five hours to drive back home with the option of total silence, having had the film marinating in my head for days, I still hadn’t come up with a takeaway. I wanted to ask different questions this time, discover something new, but the story looked too familiar.
Eventually, Chris begins to gain some momentum in her writing. On a walk with Tony, she describes the story’s developing plot, thus launching a movie-within-the-movie: a sensual and frustrating meta-narrative of Amy (Mia Wasikowska)—also a filmmaker, also a mother, also in Fårö—and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), two youngish, longtime on-again-off-again lovers who travel to Bergman’s island for the wedding of a mutual friend. From there, the film alternates between the two plots: Amy and Joseph, Chris and Tony. At one point, the narratives bleed into one another, with Chris actually directing Amy and Joseph—lights, camera, and all—as she wraps up the film she wrote them into.
There is another minor thread, which is the life and work of Ingmar Bergman, an omnipotent ghost throughout. While nearly all the major and minor characters in the film are Bergman diehards, glorifying his life and work, one scene diverges from this pattern. Chris takes a swig of wine and asks a table full of cinephiles, “Do you think one can create a great body of work and raise a family at the same time?” My ears perked up from where I lounged on my hotel bed. Bergman was married five times, fathered nine children by six different women. “Do you think Bergman could have directed 26 films if he’d been changing diapers?” says one of the characters, to which Chris responds, speaking of the line between art and real life, “I like a certain coherence.”
Days pass, Tony composes, Chris remains stunted. She swims in the ocean, explores the terrain by bike, attempts to write again but to no avail. Over a meal in their cottage, Chris again exacerbated, Tony offers some actual worthwhile encouragement. He says that artists are always telling the same story over and over again, just from different perspectives and different places in time. This lingered with me, and still sticks. When I was just finishing graduate school, still unsure who I was as an artist, my thesis advisor told me that my beat was “the Uterus and the American Dream.” It took some time for this to sink in, but it still rings true no matter what I write about. Everything I do, see, and write always seems to be through Uterus-and-American-Dream-colored glasses.
Do you think you can create a great body of work and raise a family at the same time?
Before living on my own little island, I’d left Maine for Brooklyn. I thought that’s what real writers do: live in New York. By chance, I’d become friends with a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who taught at Columbia, and he’d agreed to casually mentor me. (This was before I applied to graduate school and ended up going for creative nonfiction, which, to me, is like sensual journalism.) One bit of advice this mentor had repeated over beers and dart games was that in order to be a successful writer, one can never get married, can never have children. He had a ponytail and was single, had never been married nor had any children. I was maybe 25 at the time, he in his fifties. I tried to brand this dictum into my brain: never marry, never have kids.
One night, Ponytail invited me to dinner at his apartment in Morningside Heights. I was out on his fire escape smoking a cigarette, thinking about how cool I was (I should’ve been wearing a beret) and how someday I would look back at this moment—a single writer with my lauded comrade, shooting out stories we’d write, making great claims about ourselves and the universe—and when I climbed back inside, he had set a candlelit dinner for two of oysters, chocolate-covered strawberries, and champagne. You bet he tried to kiss me that night. It had never been about mentorship, never been about making art.
Now, I have two children (ages six and eight) and three published books. I’m typing this in my office on an island just as beautiful and inspiring as Fårö. After I married, I moved back to Maine because I realized you don’t have to live in New York to be a writer. I moved to where I actually wanted to be: someplace quiet and stunning, with a lot of trees and fewer people. But even here, it’s still difficult to write. There’s a steady and bold coherence between my art and real life. I don’t—I can’t—separate the two.
Do you think you can create a great body of work and raise a family at the same time?
In the opening scene of Bergman Island, Chris and Tony are on the plane headed to Fårö. Her head is in his lap; she’s terrified of the turbulence. She asks Tony what will happen to their daughter back home should the plane crash and they die. Even-keeled, practically enjoying the bumps, Tony responds, “She’ll be fine.” It’s annoying.
Perpetually hovering over Chris’s head is the nurturing of others, the worrying over their daughter, the needs of her partner. She brings Tony tea, attends the film panel in which he’s celebrated. She, too, is capable of making art, but not in an out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of way. For her there’s coherence, care and worry, between her art and her personal life. She’s accommodating. Perhaps this is primitive—for sure it’s socially trained and expected. I am a woman who was raised to consider the needs of others. As a mother, one is accommodating by reflex.
It isn’t until Tony leaves the island to retrieve their daughter that Chris can really get to work and unlock her writing. I see myself here; most often, at this point in my life I can only write in spurts. Only when I am completely alone, with no trace of my family for a good period of time, can I bear down and focus, can I go deep. My husband contributes a great deal to childcare and domestic chores—he makes more than me, so when it comes down to who “gets” to work and who “has to” do childcare, he’ll be at the office. Still, when I work from home, perpetually hovering over my head is the steady surveillance and constant vigilance of my children, my spouse. There’s the dog to walk. The housekeeping. The doctor’s appointments and dentist. The clothes the kids have outgrown. The soap refill. When the school calls because someone has a scratchy throat, I am the caregiver who picks up the children.My family is my fuel, and my family is my distraction.
Even though our domestic chores are nearly an even split, I still can’t flip a switch and detach from my family when I’m not home: while I was away in Lubec, my son called me, not his father, crying because one of our chickens had gone missing, and I spent the first few hours of my retreat contacting neighbors and putting together a search party for McLovin’. (She’s fine.)
That is to say: I am capable of creating a great body of work if there are others who can step in and contribute to the running of the household, the raising of the children. Like Chris, the times when my parents offer to babysit, when my husband takes the lead, when the chores aren’t staring me down, I can get to work. My real work. My valuable work. My family is my fuel, and my family is my distraction.
When I work—when I create—the truth is I do tend to write the same thing over and over again, from different perspectives and different places in time. With Bergman Island, I wanted to write about something different. And yet this is what I saw, once again: the Uterus and the American Dream. But isn’t that what art does? Help us unlock the answers to our own questions? When we bear witness to art, we stretch it to fit around our own stories, to make sense of things.
In watching Bergman Island, I tried not to look for answers to my own questions, questions I’m so used to asking that I sometimes forget they exist. But the solution isn’t to deny my questions and look for someone else’s, or to deny my own life by breaking away from family. I like a certain coherence, too. I’m not ashamed of being accommodating. My family dynamic, the tenderness I provide for them, inspires my art.
Do you think a woman can create a great body of work and raise a family at the same time? Yes. She can do anything. The real question should be this: can the community—the fathers, the family, our villages—rally and accommodate the mother, so that she can create her great body of work?