John: Perhaps there isn’t much difference between human beings and human beings.
I learned a valuable lesson the other day when I saw Liv Ullmann’s MISS JULIE, an adaptation of the 1888 Swedish play by August Strindberg. When watching a tragedy, it is best to just surrender to the despair that emanates from the screen, rather than fight your natural impulses to dismiss the happenings on screen as merely melodramatic nonsense. In this particular case, if you don’t give in to MISS JULIE, you will miss some stunning cinematography, some astounding dialogue, as well as the opportunity to witness three incredible actors giving some of the finest performances of their careers. That said, MISS JULIE is relentless from the very beginning and tragedy is only made truly tragic when the audience cares about what’s at stake.
It is a midsummer night in Northern Ireland just before the turn of the 20th century. Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat is feeling trapped in her mansion. Her life has been one of solitude and it has made her cold and callous. She decides that on this particular night, she will have some fun at the expense of her father’s valet, John (Colin Farrell) and the cook (Samatha Morton), who also happens to be John’s fiancee. This is all the background that we are given about this twisted trio. Without anything more to go on, it is difficult to connect with them or feel any sympathy for them before Miss Julie’s cruel antics take over for the evening. Her motivations are unclear as well, through no fault of Chastain’s though. She torments and taunts John as they oscillate all through the night back and forth between flirtation and aggression. The tension is so thick at times that it is impossible to look away, no matter how uncomfortable their interaction. This is in great part due to the brilliance found in each performance; Farrell has never been this good, as far as I can recall, and Chastain shows us that she is growing, very rapidly, into the greatest actress working in film today.
Ullmann, no stranger herself to tragedy having been a muse of Ingmar Bergman’s back in the day, maintains a steady level of intensity throughout MISS JULIE. The action takes place primarily in the kitchen and in a few corridors and keeping it confined to these areas only heightens the pressure brought about by the inappropriateness of these actions. As distinguished as the film often is though, some of the symbolism seems too plain to be all there is to it. For instance, Miss Julie dreams of falling while John dreams of climbing in a thinly veiled commentary on the decline of the upper class at the time. Miss Julie even owns a caged bird, as if we didn’t already know she felt like one herself. It is possible that some of the more miserable and self-punishing elements of this play are just not my cup of tea; and it is possible that it just wasn’t what I was in the mood for. That said, if tragedy is your thing, well it doesn’t get much more tragic, or much more terrific, than MISS JULIE.