Saturday, January 19, 2008


August Strindberg is an important figure in 20th-century theatre. The Swedish playwright's productions strove for a new sense of naturalism and explored the psychological landscape of the featured characters. His turn-of-the-century drama, Miss Julie, was scandalous not just because it dug at the marrow of injustice in social constructs and portrayed its titular heroine as having a potent sexuality, but also because Strindberg demanded real props be on stage and structured his script as one long scene without any act breaks. His effect on live drama in general, and Swedish theatre in particular, is still being felt today. Certainly there would have been no Ingmar Bergman without August Strindberg.

There were several film productions of Miss Julie before Alf Sjöberg's, but it was this 1951 production, now on DVD from Criterion, that finally allowed the conflicted socialite to make the transition from playhouse to movie house. Much like Bergman after him, Sjöberg had his hand in both worlds. (The two actually worked together once, with Sjöberg directing Bergman's screenplay Torment.) The director's film version of Miss Julie came on the heels of a successful stage revival he helmed. While such a connection often spelled trouble for filmed versions of stage plays, with the conventions of the traditional theatre translating to a stiff mis-en-scene in the newer art form, Sjöberg proved adept at both crafts, and thus understood what it took to make Miss Julie a successful film while also keeping Strindberg's meaning and artistry intact.

The whole of Miss Julie takes place over one night, during the midsummer festival when the Swedes celebrate the midnight sun and a full day of light. At a posh country estate, the servants play while the boss is way. The Count (Anders Henrikson) is celebrating elsewhere, only his daughter Julie (Anita Björk) remains. She is ready to dance and drink with the lower class, especially her handsome footman Jean (Ulf Palme). Jean is caught between his duty and his manhood, knowing with his brain that he needs to submit to his mistress' orders but desiring in his loins for her to submit to his. Jean is the object of many a girl's affection on the estate, but he is engaged to the cook, Kristin (Märta Dorff).

Strindberg's original play actually takes place entirely in the kitchen, as the strained triangle of Julie, Jean, and Kristin battle across social and sexual lines. Smartly, Sjöberg takes the action out of the house and restructures the story as a whirlpool of flirtation and memory. Moving at a feverish pace, the push and pull between Julie and Jean explores questions of social and class status, gender roles, and even the sincerity of the participants. Though there are a couple of instances where two lusty lovers succumb to their baser desires--first between servant girl Viola (Inga Gill) and the haunting farmhand (Max von Sydow), then between Julie and Jean, and more later with Viola, who gets around--there are far more emotional orgasms, with blood rushing to the head and igniting emotions, and then the flip of post-coital guilt as the blood rushes back, leaving Jean and Julie to deny everything they just said.

Not being constrained by time and space, Sjöberg is free to expand beyond the core cast (Sydow's role is invented for the film, serving as the peeping eye and guilty conscience of social convention) and also bring to life scenes of dialogue as honest-to-goodness flashbacks. Thus, we get extended sequences of a young Jean (Jan Hagerman) first seeing a young Julie (Inger Norberg), fomenting a love that burns through the years only to finally explode on this night. (He literally crawls out of the muck in order to first set eyes on her.) We also see the home life that fostered Julie's confused mental state. Her mother (Lissi Alandh) was a progressive feminist who turned the Count's farm upside-down, assigning masculine duties to the female servants and vice versa. Raising Julie as a boy, dressing her in boy clothes, she encouraged the daughter to break out of prescribed roles. When this experiment fails and Julie is yanked back into the lifestyle she was reared to reject, Mom is unable to let the issue rest, turning her husband into a cuckold and exacting a revenge that is still felt in the household.

Thus, Julie's confusion stems from her wanting to act on her yearnings but feeling there is punishment awaiting anyone who does. She indulges in petty displays of power that stand as substitutes for the sex she can only spy at through peepholes, feeling a mixture of arousal and disgust. I couldn't take my eyes of off Anita Björk during Miss Julie, not just because she's a beautiful actress, but she is so adept at creating an air of crazy all around her, I was afraid I would miss something. It's interesting to note that this is the same year that Vivien Leigh gave a similarly impressive performance as the similarly fractured Blanche DuBois in 1951's other big-screen stage adaptation, Elia Kazan's film translation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. While Ulf Palme is no Marlon Brando, there are macho parallels to be drawn between Jean the footman and Stanley Kowalski, both of whom persecute these woman for their lusty desires to the point of breaking them.

It's been a while since I've seen Streetcar, but I'd actually posit that Sjöberg is able to run a little more wild than Kazan. The open Swedish countryside and the ongoing, hazy state of near-twilight (photographed beautifully by Göran Strindberg, a descendant of August) creates a false feeling of passion and freedom in Julie, making it all the more stifling when she must return to the house, the kitchen, and her old life. Blanche DuBois can never quite break through those walls, and thus the release experienced at the close of the Williams play is one of further confinement. Arguably, Julie's last act of the Strindberg play finally gets her off of daddy's plantation.

Then again, based on your point of view, she may be trading one restrictive life for another. It all depends on what you believe comes after....

For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

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