Midsummer night, 1894, in northern Sweden. The complex strictures of class bind a man and a woman. Miss Julie, the inexperienced but imperious daughter of the manor, deigns to dance at the servant's party. She's also drawn to Jean, a footman who has traveled, speaks well, and doesn't kowtow. He is engaged to Christine, a servant, and while she sleeps, Jean and Miss Julie talk through the night in the kitchen. For part of the night it's a power struggle, for part it's the bearing of souls, and by dawn, they want to break the chains of class and leave Sweden together. When Christine wakes and goes off to church, Jean and Miss Julie have their own decisions to make. Written by
Mike Figgis originally planned to make this with Nicolas Cage and Juliette Binoche. However, when he made _Leaving Las Vegas_ with Cage, the actor's salary was a manageable $200,000. Following his Oscar win, Cage's price shot up to $20 million. See more »
Strindberg's midsummer nightmare to Shakespeare's dream. 'miss julie' has been touted (by its director, at any rate) as a new way of filming works of classic literature. The film begins, however, as almost all adaptations of plays do, with bustle, hyperactive camerawork and editing, and lots of people (and therefore lots of centres of interest), to fool the viewer into thinking they are watching cinema, and to avoid making the next two hours of stagy talk seem so much like stagy talk (a recent example of this nethod is the Nick Nolte/Jeff Bridges film 'simpatico'). And what follows, sure enough, is two hours of stagy talk.
Figgis' current inspiration is the Dogme 95 collective of Danish filmmakers, although when the opening titles proclaim 'A Mike Figgis Film', we realise that it's not going to be THAT radical (Dogme directors do not sign their work (although, curiously enough, we all know who they are)). For all its self-imposed constraints, Dogme is a model of freedom - by banishing shackles of conventional cinema, they are free to pursue other stylistic methods that are not 'allowed' in 'proper' filmmaking.
'julie', however, is only superficially a Dogme film. It has the rough texture and grainy look, the disruptive editing, jarring compositions and unstable camerawork. But everything is so controlled, and the main reason for this is the fact that it is an adaptation of a classic play. Figgis can do all he likes to break the text, and in one way the film is a fascinating exploration of theatre space, as if the play was a tangible, physical entity, and the film was a documentary crew filming around and through it.
In the film's crucial scene, when Jean violates Julie in a dark corner of the kitchen, the screen splits in two, something theatre can't do. This provides a number of functions - it (rather obviously) singles out the scene as important; it visualises the various ruptures (class, sex, power etc.) the play narrates; it jolts the audience out of the piece, forcing us to ask ourselves what Figgis is doing with form, rather than simply follow the content; it gives us alternating views of the same scene, although two is as arbitrary as one, and the differences between the scenes are hardly Cubist.
All of this is good, but the text always intrudes. Figgis, unlike, say, Von Trier in 'the idiots', cannot go one way, because Strindberg goes another. The actors, astonishing though they are, cannot truly free themselves, lose themselves, explore themselves, because they have to remember the next line. The symbols of the play have to be worked in, which requires further conventions; but if the image of the caged bird is a cliche, its fate is truly shocking; even better are the images of water, the mill, the repetition of Julie's life, the sense of hereditary bad blood, linked to sex and virginal penetration and death, all culminating in the brilliant image near the end of bloody water.
'Julie' may not work as a Dogme film, or as a radically different literary adaptation, but it's still a good movie, largely because Strindberg's play is so brilliant. Often seen as the source of modern drama, its austere study of power and sex, its sado-masochistic rituals, the magnificent trap it sets for its characters, can be seen in its influence, not only on playwrights like Genet, Ionesco and Beckett, but directors like Sirk, Bergman and Fassbinder. Played 'straight', the piece could be stiff and RADAstifled - Figgis' style does create greater immediacy, so that you genuinely cringe and even feel for two not particularly likeable characters. Figgis doesn't have to do much to draw out the modernity of Strindberg's play - it is all already there - but his screenplay is pungently fruity.
If the film had been less cinematic, more theatrical, some of Strindberg's metaphors would have worked better - the running motif of the theatre, of playing roles (the events are overlooked by a scarecrow of the count), the masque-like intrusions of the servants, and Julie's final appearance, like a shabby old actress with her make-up mussed, lose their effect, although the servants-scene is very frightening and potent in its carnivalesque overturning of the social order.
Strindberg is literature's most famous misogynist, and yet his women are often highly sympathetic, or their plight accurately described - Saffron Burrows' humiliating decline is harrowing to watch, but I think Figgis avoids exploitation. what is most interesting is the nationality of the casting: the aristocratic English heroine attacked and undermined by her Scottish and Irish servants. it is the unseen Count who pulls the strings though; when he goes away, chaos reigns, servants become counts, countessess whores; when he returns, order is restored, deviants expelled. But for how long?
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