Judge Clark Douglas would like to write a Swedish play. If that doesn't work out, he would like to play in Sweden.
A daring study of primitive passions!
In the excellent essay included in the booklet that accompanies this film, Peter Matthews makes note of the fact that American film critics seem to be isolationists when it comes to foreign directors. The unwritten rule of focusing on only one key director per country at a time is somewhat exasperating, preventing many fine films from winning much international recognition. If you are not familiar with the work of Swedish director Alf Sjöberg, it's probably because he has been overshadowed by the work of his younger peer, Ingmar Bergman. The Criterion Collection seeks to help rectify this matter by releasing one of Sjöberg's most ambitious films, Miss Julie.
Facts of the Case
Miss Julie is perhaps better-known as play than as a Sjöberg film, having been performed in many parts of the world for over 100 years. The original play was written in 1888 by the much-acclaimed August Strindberg. The story takes place on the estate of a wealthy count (Anders Henrikson), who happens to be away on business. The count's daughter, Miss Julie (Anita Björk), has decided to grace the servants by participating in their annual Midsummer's Eve Festival (an event full of games, drinking, and dancing).
During the festival, Julie becomes distracted by Jean (Ulf Palme), one of the servants. Jean is an intelligent young man who has secretly held feelings of affection for Julie ever since his childhood. However, Jean is engaged to Kristen (Märta Dorff), another servant who is in charge of the kitchen. What follows is not the expected melodramatic love triangle, but rather an inventive and painful look at the battle between the sexes. Love, hate, and sex are all strong forces in Miss Julie, which unflinchingly examines the volatile nature of relationships between men and women.
Film critic Leonard Maltin has often complained that too many film adaptations of stage plays feel too much like…well, filmed plays. Many directors are content to do little to make plays more cinematic. However, if you did not know that Miss Julie was a play, you never would have guessed it from watching Alf Sjöberg's film version. This is one of the most blatantly cinematic stage-to-screen adaptations I have ever seen, a tribute to Sjöberg's inventiveness as a director.
In Strindberg's original play, the story takes place entirely in one setting: the kitchen. While there are a handful of kitchen scenes in this film version, Sjöberg's adaptation cheerfully wanders all over the estate, establishing an expansive sense of location. He takes us even further during the film's frequent flashback scenes and dream sequences, wandering into other places from the past and potential places of the future. Perhaps quite bravely, Sjöberg trusts the audience to understand what is going on when he jumps into a flashback, refusing to provide explanatory narration.
Even more liberties are taken with the characters, as Sjöberg provides us with a few individuals who did not appear in the play. Another servant named Viola (Inga Gill) appears from time to time as a woman who would very much like to attract Jean's attention. A young Max Von Sydow (!) also has a freshly created small role as a scruffy stablehand who always happens to be (as Peter Cowie puts it) "in the wrong place at the right time." Perhaps the most drastic change is the decision to actually let us see and hear the count, who did not have a physical presence in the original play. Peter Matthews feels that this is a significant mistake, that it removes the count's mystery. However, I tend to side with Cowie's point of view…he suggests that Anders Henrikson's touching and subtle performance brings a great deal of poignancy to the character.
The primary performances here are all quite good, particularly Anita Björk's turn as Miss Julie. In the Swedish television feature included on the DVD that gives us an examination of the play, we see other actresses using the part as a springboard for wild overacting. Björk seems to take Julie's strict upbringing into account a little bit more, always maintaining some kind of self-righteous and "proper" reservation, even during her most carnal moments. Ulf Palme plays off of Björk's more expressive role with quiet ease, giving the two a nice chemistry. Märta Dorff is touching in the play's thankless role of Kristen, Jean's quiet fiancée, who is doomed to be forgotten about and tossed aside.
Special mention should be made of the absolutely superb cinematography from Göran Strindberg (the grandson of August Strindberg's cousin). Strindberg adds a great deal to making the play cinematic, setting up some truly ingenious and thoughtful shots. One highlight is the scene in which Julie discovers the stablehand and Viola making love. The camera responds by giving us close-ups of Julie's eyes, conveying her simultaneous horror and fascination. Dag Wirén's music also aids some scenes quite well, offering sneering strains of wedding music during the scene in which the icy countess cruelly burns down the count's house, and presenting a macabre waltz over the film's punishing final scene.
Criterion has done an excellent job with the restoration of Miss Julie, making the black-and-white picture sharp and clear. The film looks as good as or better than Criterion's releases of many Ingmar Bergman films of the same period. Audio is strong as well, free of hissing and crackling. In terms of both picture and sound (well, and some of the thematic content, for that matter), this DVD is about the equivalent of Criterion's recent release of Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel.
Slightly unusual for Criterion is the fact that there is no commentary included for Miss Julie. At first glance, the extras might seem a little bit thin, but they are surprisingly meaty and thought-provoking. The best is a video essay from the wonderful Peter Cowie, which runs a solid 33 minutes. Cowie has provided many essays and commentaries for Criterion releases of Bergman films, and as such, he frequently discusses Sjöberg in comparison to Bergman (and makes a note of which Bergman films the actors in Miss Julie have appeared in). Cowie is generally quite enthusiastic about the film and the play, and offers some excellent examples of the film's many strengths. This is an informative and very engaging visual essay, accompanied with lots of video footage and stills.
Next up there's a very brief (six minutes) interview from the 1960s with director Alf Sjöberg. It's nice to meet the director, but he only discusses his career in general, not Miss Julie. The longest extra is a 56-minute Swedish television documentary about the play. The documentary follows the creation of a 2005 stage version and offers some history on Strindberg and on previous stage and screen versions of Miss Julie. There's some thoughtful discussion of the themes and ideas of the play here, including some frank statements about Strindberg's unfortunate attitudes toward women. It's a very good supplement, in Swedish with English subtitles. Finally, there's a typically sensationalistic theatrical trailer for English-language audiences, attempting to sell the scandalous sexual elements of the film (the movie was actually banned in the U.S. upon its release in 1951, a time when cinematic standards in the country were still quite strict). Also included is a booklet with a surprisingly critical but very fair-minded essay from Peter Matthews and a solid essay on Strindberg from Birgitta Steen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As good as the film's technical qualities and performances are, many have taken issue with the content of the play itself. Strindberg never liked women very much, and many have accused Miss Julie of slipping into the realm of misogyny. Unfortunately, Sjöberg seems to embrace these elements. The play, and thus the film, are both told from a very male-centered mindset, punishing the women with a mood that occasionally approaches glee. The men, on the other hand, are generally portrayed as poor unfortunate innocents who must endure the savage wiles of the women in their lives.
Even today, it seems that women are simply unable to be viewed as sexual equals to men. A man can sleep around with lots of women, and be glorified as a hero (see James Bond); any woman who attempts the same sort of behavior is labeled a whore. There is a scene in Miss Julie where the title character makes the decision to have sex with Jean. After the act, which occurs offscreen, has been completed, Jean sneeringly calls Julie a "whore" and self-loathingly derides her for sleeping with a servant. These hypocritical relationship standards are accurately reflected in the play, but the question is, is it encouraged? I think so.
The film ends with Julie's death, as our heroine determines to commit suicide rather than live a life of shame and guilt. In Strindberg's mind, this was probably the only reasonable answer, particularly in the 1800s. Julie is a woman, and because of her scandalous behavior, Strindberg gave her the punishment of death. However, had the story been about a wealthy young man who had slept with a female servant, I sincerely doubt that the result would have been the same. While there are valid arguments in favor of the ending (some say that it was a premeditated act, not a direct result of Julie's scandalous activities), I have a great deal of trouble finding justification for some of the attitudes Strindberg and Sjöberg endorse.
We can discuss the merits of Miss Julie from an ethical standpoint all day long, but the fact remains that this is an important and ambitious film version of an important and ambitious play. The Criterion Collection has put together a typically solid, fair-minded release that preserves and celebrates the many noteworthy elements of Miss Julie without dismissing the less attractive qualities of the story. For fans of foreign cinema who would like to see exceptional work from a Swedish director other than Ingmar Bergman, this is an important release.
Strindberg's play and Sjöberg's film are both guilty of endorsing some rather unfortunate attitudes towards women. However, both are released on parole due to their exceptional work in other departments. The fine folks at Criterion who produced this release are to be commended for their solid work, and are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• New video essay with film historian Peter Cowie
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