August Strindberg’s great 1888 Miss Julie is transformed into a powerful, visually ravishing black-and-white film by director Alf Sjöberg and cinematographer Göran Strindberg, the Swedish playwright’s grandson.
Strindberg’s theme is vibrant: the psychological burden affecting individuals because of classism, the deep division between aristocracy and the working poor, between master, or mistress, and servant.
It is the dazzling sunlit day preceding Midsummer Eve. Like her mother, who went insane because of the straightjacketing conventional roles society imposed on her, Julie is a rebel. Since childhood, she has been in love with Jean, now her father’s valet, and he has been in love with her. But love in any wholesome sense is not possible between them, as indeed their union isn’t possible, not only because of class taboo, but because the institution of class difference has twisted their souls. Their dreams are exact opposites: Jean dreams of climbing; Julie, of falling. How else to redress the imbalance between them? But Julie’s dream makes her a “slut” in Jean’s eyes, and Jean’s dream makes him, to Julie, dangerously presumptuous.
Formally, the first part of the film is exceptionally fine. Midsummer festivities—dances, sprints down rolling hills, horseback rides, rowing boats—compose a rush of movement that Sjöberg breathtakingly orchestrates. Creating a flexible, breathing fabric of the present, childhood memories and dreams, he cuts back and forth among them, and in several magical instances moves the camera from one to the other in a single shot. The latter part of the film, more of a chamber drama, is inherently less interesting as cinema.
In the lead role, Anita Björk gives a fascinating, complex performance, capturing Julie’s haughtiness, perverseness, vulnerability and profound sadness. Ulf Palme is excellent as Jean. One more member of the cast delights: twenty years old here (imagine!), Max von Sydow.
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