Miss Julie: Movie Review

Liv Ullmann’s 2014 film version of August Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie, is finally out on DVD, making it available to those of us who live in the hinterlands without an art house in town. (For those of you pointing out that there are two art film theaters in Salt Lake, and that this did play there, where I could have seen it, I can only say, yes, I could have, but I didn’t. It’s an hour away, and I’m old. So there).

I love Miss Julie. It’s a brilliant play, possibly Strindberg’s masterpiece (though I’m also partial to Dance of Death and A Dream Play), a play many years ahead of its day, and also deeply anchored in the late 19th century. Dramaturgically, that is, the play feels like it could be written today–all that non sequitar dialogue, every interaction between its three characters subtextual and interior. And it’s ugly. It’s a play about sex and violence and lust and the lies men and women tell each other. But it’s also a play about the class and gender expectations of the late nineteenth century. Julie has, in part, internalized her father’s preposterous notions about educating young women, just as Jean’s ability to act disappears, and he is completely paralyzed when his master rings for him. That doesn’t mean it’s dated. It’s a play about how cultural norms warp and twist and damage us. It’s a play about how false and deadly class and gender and society falseness can be. The film feels old-fashioned and dated, a bit, because it’s a film based on a play–dialogue-heavy, with long, talky scenes. But it rewards our patience.

Ullmann has shifted the action from Sweden to Ireland, a brilliant choice. In a play where the characters are defined by social class, it helps to contrast the Irish servants, Jean and Christine (who become John and Kathleen) with their British aristocrat oft-absentee overlords, Julie and her father, the Baron (who never appears on-screen).  Class becomes front and center in these relationships every time the characters speak. And the cast is magnificent: Jessica Chastain as Julie, Colin Farrell as John, Samantha Morton as Kathleen.

Of course, any production of Miss Julie requires a Julie who can meet the demands of that part. As Strindberg conceives her, Julie is a upper-class woman used to being obeyed, who, on a whim, at times, plays childishly at social leveling, then feigns shock when her servants resent it. Under that, is a budding sexuality, with its demands, and under that, a terrible, crippling insecurity and vulnerability. And under that, deadly, killing depression. Jean (or John, in this version), imagines himself to be undaunted by class, and free to play dangerous sexual games with someone in a position to destroy his life. In fact, he’s a weakling and a coward, which the sensible Christine (Kathleen here), knows in her bones, and is willing to be content with. He’s a valet; she’s a cook. Marrying him (which he seems to have hinted at, if not actually promised), is a step up for her, socially. So she waits on him, cooks special meals for him, sleeps with him. She’s the only character who sees right through John and Julie’s dangerous flirtations, and the only one interested in, though not capable of, pulling them back.

It can be a frustrating film to watch, I’ll grant that. The dialogue is opaque; they only rarely say what they’re actually thinking, and emotion drowns out clarity with alarming frequency. And it’s not an attractive film. Filmed at Castle Coole in County Fermanagh in Ireland, we don’t see much of the countryside, and almost nothing of the fancier areas of the castle. Mostly, the action takes place in Kathleen’s drab, functional kitchen. The focus is on the actors, on their physicality in that space. And Chastain is remarkable, with her angular face, her broken, stiff posture, her dress falling off her shoulder. The character ranges from imperious and commanding to suicidal, and Chastain makes it all work. Farrell is not a whit behind her, conveying both his self-delusion, his frankly open lust, and his dangerous and deadly weakness.

If I have one complaint about the film, it’s in its depiction of the Midsummer’s Eve celebration of the other servants. That night, full of drunken revelry and open sexuality, is actively dangerous for Julie and John, a night when only the most rigid compliance with the rules of class distinctions can prevent class resentment turning violent. In the play, Julie and Jean take refuge in his bedroom out of desperate self-defense. In the movie, John’s offer of safe haven seems to have just a hint of a sexual agenda. Does Julie seduce him, does he seduce her, do they willfully seduce each other? It’s a point Strindberg leaves unanswered. But in his play, we do see the other servants, as their party destroys Christine’s domain, the kitchen. I think we need that violence; the best productions I have seen don’t shy away from it, as Ullmann’s does. Ullmann’s filmmaking has a restraint and delicacy that work beautifully for most of the film. But when the film seems to require a harsher tone, she backs away from it a little.

Still, it’s quite wonderful. Liv Ullmann worked with Ingmar Bergman in ten films. She knows where to put the camera, and like Bergman, she also knows when the camera should linger, not on the speaker, but the hearer. Plus, it’s a superbly acted version of Miss Julie. What’s not to love?

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