Miss Julie, perhaps the most celebrated of all Swedish plays (and certainly among the most oft-performed), remains as confounding today as when it was written in the late 1880s by J. August Strindberg. A dense character study, a lashing critique of class structure, and a cynical assault on the notion of sexual equality, Miss Julie is open to myriad readings.
Perhaps what is so compelling about this classic play lies in its inherent openness to interpretation. Pauline Kael once wrote of Terence Malick’s equally perplexing 1979 masterpiece, Days of Heaven, that: “you can hang all your old metaphors on it.” While she meant that as an indirect criticism of its vagaries and refusal to assert its message, I tend to read it as a celebration of said same. Sometimes, it’s invigorating not to be told what to think.
For a play set on the longest day of the year (Midsummer’s Eve, which tends to fall around the third weekend in June), Miss Julie is a fascinatingly dark bit of storytelling. In the play, all of the action takes place in a kitchen as Miss Julie, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, falls for her father’s acid-tongued footman. As the two characters move inexorably toward coupling, even as it becomes clear to the audience that Jean, the servant, is opportunistic and Julie is slipping into a kind of insanity, we hear the revelry of the other servants drifting in through the windows.
Much of the power of Strindberg’s staging comes from this juxtaposition between a celebration of life, sexuality, and freedom without, and the claustrophobic horrorshow within. The famous ending finds Julie, fearing that she has now permanently sullied her reputation and honour by sleeping with a man from the lower classes, slitting her own throat as her erstwhile lover encourages her. It’s a complex, infuriating study of the politics of gender, of class, and of lust. As the play moves along, and as Julie becomes ever more of a powerful character, she also treads ever closer to her own, apparently necessary, suicide.
August Strindberg holds a deeply ambiguous reputation among feminists. While his plays often bear out his own frustrations with women and the empty theatrics of gender, they also frequently present women in a more complicated, potent way than did those of his contemporaries. Indeed, Strindberg’s plays stand as exciting glimpses into the mind of a late-19th century artist struggling with the kind of gender politics we are so concerned with today.
To take a perhaps odd example: his Julie seems to share something in common with Meg Ryan’s character in Jane Campion’s recent thriller, In the Cut. Both are aware of their own curious ambivalence toward sex, about the dangers inherent in their desires, and yet are both overcome by the need to embrace the near-certain disaster of sexual awakening. Julie chases Jean just as he chases her – in the end, they both reveal a certain opportunism here, they both seem to have got what they had set out to find. Strindberg’s Julie, then, might be a proto-feminist assault on the stacked deck of sexual politics.
But Strindberg’s play may also be viewed in exactly the opposite way: as an indictment of the foolishness of women to fall into the trap of lascivious men. Miss Julie has been read as a classic example of a “falling woman” narrative – a reading that is best defended by the sequence in which she recalls her dream of literally falling from a great height, while Jean tells of his dream about climbing to the top of a giant tree. (Here, as throughout the play, phallic symbols abound, and are conflated with male sexual and physical power.) And so Julie might be understood as a cautionary tale, a warning to all those rarified women who would fall prey to the untoward advances of their smooth-talking footmen.
The fact that Julie’s ending here is so much a closed door speaks loudly to this interpretation. In what would become a classic horror movie trope, Strindberg’s equation here translates to: female sexual awakening/transgression equals death. It’s just that in this case, the slasher is herself.
Alf Sjöberg, still in 1951 the undisputed master of the Swedish cinema [before his younger competitor (and sometimes collaborator) Ingmar Bergman usurped his throne], takes many exciting liberties with Strindberg’s often stifling play. Most striking of all, he moves the action out of the kitchen, freeing it from the suffocating confines and bringing it into the twilight of a summer solstice. He also adds a variety of new characters to the mix, giving flesh to what had been, in Strindberg’s formulation, mere gestures. Most significantly, he creates the character of the carriage driver (played by a 21-year-old Max von Sydow), and allows him to act as the dirty conscience of the film, positioning him within ear- or eyeshot of many of the key scenes.
He also reinvents, and then fills out, the crucial character of Julie’s mother, a sinister and calculating woman whose disdain for her own sex (indeed, all sex!) is manifest in her forcing the young Julie to dress and act as a boy. In what is the most striking commentary on gender roles in the film, she decrees that among her husband’s farmhands, all of the women must perform “male” work, and vice versa, effectively destroying the local economy. It’s a stark, almost humourous moment, speaking volumes about the kind of interpretive possibilities suggested by the film.
Sjöberg’s approach, then, is both successful and necessary – there is little doubt that the immediacy of the stage serves the one-set construction of the play much better than would the inherent expressionism of cinema. By moving many of the scenes around, pushing the actors outside, and playing with the eerie midnight sun for lighting, Sjöberg frees himself from the confines of the script, opening up the play to a wider, more mysterious level of interpretation. And so, the film remains deeply compelling, even for those who know the play backwards and forwards. Especially during the profoundly courageous section in which Sjöberg subtly suggests that Julie may be a hermaphrodite, he was at every turn commenting on, complimenting, the original words on the page. In every way an “adult” film, Sjöberg’s Miss Julie demands close attention, a willing curiosity, and an able mind. It is in every way a masterpiece.
This Criterion Collection release boasts both a wonderfully clean transfer and a treasure trove of fascinating extras. Any fan, either of Strindberg or of cinema, will be well-served by picking this up. The two gems here (apart from the film) include a 45-minute photo essay by Peter Cowie (Criterion’s go-to man for Swedish cinema), which cuts to the heart of the intellectual issues on discussion here, and a fabulous, hugely informative documentary on a recent stage production of the play.
This documentary, in particular, opens the door to new, exciting readings of the play, of Sjöberg’s film, and of the mind of Strindberg himself. It’s quite unforgettable, and not just because it emphasizes lingering studies of the incomparably beautiful and brilliant actress Maria Bonnevie (although, one could simply, and happily, watch her stand still for an hour). Watching a group of artists wrestle with the material in the present reminds us of just how timeless, how alive, this stuff really is.