Miss Julie (1951)

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*. The play was written in 1888 and was quite controversial at the time. How amazing is it that it remains so provocative over a hundred years later?
*. But then we are living in the what’s been dubbed by some the Second Gilded Age, with social and economic inequality reaching ever greater heights. We also are living in a time of political correctness at war with pop evolutionary psychology and a resurgence in social Darwinism. So a play that dramatizes these conflicts — between classes and the sexes — is still very much a play for our time.
*. Put another way, August Strindberg’s naturalism was an attempt to ground his characters, casting them as representatives of timeless “natural” archetypes in conflict with the spirit of the age (feminism being one diseased symptom of that spirit). So his Miss Julie is still our Miss Julie, and I suspect most of us have met her once or twice.

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*. Plays have to be enlarged to fit the big screen. As Peter Matthews nicely phrases it in his Criterion essay, a movie of a play needs to take advantage of the “extrovert capacities of film.” This is especially the case with Miss Julie which is (a) a short play, presented as a single continuous scene; and (b) a very restricted play, with all of the action taking place in one crowded kitchen set.
*. Barring some extreme minimalist treatment, Alf Sjöberg was going to have to blow things up. This he does, and quite effectively. With one exception, I think this is a terrific adaptation of the play: honest, intelligent, and insightful.
*. I won’t leave you in suspense about the one exception. I think what’s done with the part of the count, Julie’s father, is a mistake. Ideally, some way should have been found to either keep him off screen entirely or reduce his role to a bare minimum. In the play he’s an absent God figure, represented only by his boots (fetish objects for Jean) and a speaking tube through which his (unheard) voice of authority barks commands.
*. This “present absence” increases the sense of power we feel the count exerting over Julie and Jean. He is a threatening figure, embodying some forceful combination of the social order and divine retribution. On film . . .
*. Given Sjöberg’s incorporation of flashbacks into the film, showing the count was probably unavoidable. But as Mathews points out, “lending the character flesh . . . reduces his potency.” Making matters worse, Anders Henrikson is wrong for the part, coming across as a wimpy cuckold who the other stolid burghers (not to mention his ball-busting wife) view as an old fool. This makes a muddle of his thematic role.

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*. Aside from Henrikson, it’s a very well cast movie. Ulf Palme as Jean is both scheming and soft, a lazy loser hoping to float above his station and possessing “a surly, sly arrogance that makes his conquest of [Julie] a true degradation” (Pauline Kael).
*. I really like Anita Björk but Miss Julie is a part that I think needs to be sexed up somewhat. When Julie is first introduced in the play she’s said to be “crazy” and apprently the actual word Strindberg used, galen, has connotations of an animal being in heat. Later she likens her coupling with Jean to bestiality. It’s that kind of thing. But while there are hints of that here Björk’s a bit too coquetteish. She needs more vulgarity.

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*. What stands out the most about the production is the way the flashbacks and imagined scenarios are dramatized in the same space as time present. This struck me as very advanced for 1951 and I’m not sure if it was wholly original or if someone had done it before Sjöberg. In any event it’s both very theatrical (being the kind of thing you could do on stage) and very cinematic.
*. Peter Cowie calls it a “well-made film,” as we would speak of a “well-made play.” And perhaps it’s a bit too pat in places. The immediate association of Julie with the bird in the gilded cage was trite, as was the raising of the maypole and the local girl’s fascination at its erection. And as if all those family portraits weren’t enough, having one fall on Jean and showing him struggling beneath it is really laying it on thick.

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*. Then there is the ending. I don’t much care for it, as it takes us away from Julie and places too much emphasis on her madwoman-in-the-attic mother and helpless dad. Nevertheless, something had to be done as the ending of the play, with Julie simply taking the razor with her off stage, wasn’t going to be enough.
*. Of course any filmed play can only offer up one interpretation. I think that this film is as good as it could be, but it’s far from the only way to skin Strindberg’s cat. Our Miss Julie has plenty of costume changes left.

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