Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Passing is now playing at the Crest theater in Seattle; Bergman Island plays at the Grand Illusion from Nov. 5-10.
A look across a room—one of many in Passing, a movie in which scrutiny is a frequent pursuit—determines the fate of two women. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is taking a moment out her life, pretending for just one single afternoon to be a white woman in a fancy hotel café, and at that very moment her glance meets that of Clare (Ruth Negga), an old friend who lives like this all the time. “This” being white, as Clare is light-skinned enough and ambitious enough to make the ruse work.
The glance, though, is key, and director Rebecca Hall knows it: not just “What are you doing?” or “Is that really you?” but also panic, embarrassment, curiosity, the urge to flee, and the desperate thrill of meeting someone who might understand you. Irene is our point-of-view character, and Hall mostly keeps her in close-up; Clare is seen at a distance, but soon Clare rises, comes over to join Irene’s story, and from there Clare’s trajectory is nearly a straight line to disaster.
We’re in the 1920s, as Passing is based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. The movie treatment (written by Hall) from a hundred years later has some unevenness in its approach: certain melodramatic conventions stick out awkwardly, the boxy old-fashioned frame seems uncertainly composed (I couldn’t work out why there’s so much head room in some shots), and black-and-white photography doesn’t look as good as black-and-white did in 1929. At times the film feels scalpel-like in the way it exposes the tiny frustrations of domestic life or old friendship; Hall is very good at navigating the Harlem brownstone where Irene lives with her successful physician husband (the excellent Andre Holland), their two children, and a housemaid—who also sees things. At other times the movie seems naïve, or too quick to wrap things up with the idea that everyone, in some way, is passing, which is true enough, but a little too vague for the more urgent issues happening in Clare’s life.
We don’t spend time with Clare on her own, and that might contribute to this lack of urgency, even though the film has every right to keep its point of view with Irene, whose own dissatisfaction is plenty urgent to her (Irene’s intelligence has made her something of a scold, a talent that inevitably turns on herself). Because Clare is offscreen for half the film, you really need a great actress to leave an impression, and here the movie wins out, because Ruth Negga is that actress, and every time she drops by the brownstone to be around black people—again, there’s that desperate thrill of meeting someone who might understand you—Negga lights up with yearning and delight. Thompson is very nearly her equal, and the chemistry between the two of them is persuasive—friends united, and divided, by color.
I’m trying not to let my disappointment in Bergman Island outweigh the pleasures the film has to offer: appealing people onscreen, a rangy sort of laid-back energy, and location work that will, or should, thrill any cinephile. The disappointment stems from the promise of director Mia Hansen-Love’s previous work, especially Things to Come, which was, to put it mildly, my kind of deal. Bergman Island is earthbound by comparison, but the earth it rests on is special—indeed, cinematically sacred.
A filmmaking couple, Chris and Tony (played by Phantom Thread star Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth), come to the Swedish island of Faro to work on separate projects—but also to soak in the atmosphere of the place that was home (and sometime shooting location) to Ingmar Bergman. They’ve even rented some houses on Bergman’s estate, so they’ll be sleeping in the bed from Scenes from a Marriage, as someone helpfully points out, which isn’t really that helpful, given the nature of that film and Chris and Tony’s own relationship, which always seems to involve walking on eggshells a bit. Sequences dawdle by as these two go exploring; the island devotes itself partly to turning Bergman’s world into a Scandinavian Graceland, with a “Bergman Safari” that trundles visitors around to landmarks of the cinema of depression.
Hansen-Love doesn’t seem interested in anything Bergmanesque in her approach, which is lighter, more elliptical, and frankly more French than the master’s usual mode. (Bergman had many modes, the majority of them enthralling, but grant me some shorthand here.) It’s more about what artists do when they are in a shadow, whether it’s the shadow of a giant like Bergman or the shadow Chris stands in vis-à-vis her own better-known partner. Despite some vagaries of performance (too much of the English-language dialogue sounds clumsy even when delivered by native English speakers), the mood is generally inviting, and Hansen-Love has a great eye for posture—the film is a study in how people slouch and lope. But—and this is big—there’s another half of the movie, a piece of fiction (presumably a film made by Chris, based on her work on the island) featuring Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielson Lie as former lovers reunited on Faro. This story vibrates, somehow, in a way the wraparound story does not—it feels like a true fiction, if that doesn’t sound like an oxymoron, sing-songy and mysterious in a way that makes the story of the visiting filmmakers look like a home movie.
Somewhere behind all this lies an early conversation about Ingmar Bergman’s choice (but was it a choice, really) to put making art before being a good husband and father. I’m not sure how that question connects to the other things we see on screen—but it is there, and somehow it makes Bergman Island feel minor by comparison.
November 5, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.