Miss Julie

Norway-UK-France-Ireland 2014, 130 mins
Director: Liv Ullmann

+ intro by Elaine Wong, short film programmer, BFI London Film Festival (Friday 29 April only).

If all American literature is made of tributaries of Mark Twain’s Mississippi and, as Dostoevsky had it, the whole of Russian literature came from under Gogol’s overcoat, then in the same spirit we might say that modern Swedish drama was cooked up in the kitchen where August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) takes place. Strindberg died in 1912, though not before the first adaptations of Miss Julie and The Father had gone before the camera, a development that no doubt interested their author; a playwright, novelist, memoirist, essayist and painter, he was also fascinated by photography, and had even invented a ‘camera’ which imprinted images (Celestographs) on photographic plates without lenses. Long after Strindberg’s death, his influence on the emerging national cinema would be inestimable. ‘Strindberg,’ Ingmar Bergman would say, ‘has generally been my companion throughout life, alternately repelling and attracting me’ – and it is in this combative spirit that Liv Ullmann has created her strife-racked Miss Julie.

Miss Julie is the fifth feature-length work by Ullmann, Bergman’s long-time collaborator and – in her previous film, 2000’s Bergman-scripted Faithless – the executor of his legacy. (She is Norwegian, and it transpires that she settled on Strindberg only after failing to launch a film of A Doll’s House by her countryman Henrik Ibsen.)

The most immediately evident change made to Strindberg’s play in this go-around is that the action has been moved from Sweden at the turn of the last century to Northern Ireland at the same time (the film was shot on location at Castle Coole in County Fermanagh). Strindberg’s central trio are still here: Jean (now John), the valet with arriviste fantasies and a taste for imported wines, is played by Colin Farrell; Miss Julie, daughter of the baronial manor who surrenders her maidenhead to ‘the help’, is played by Jessica Chastain; Kathleen, the cook and John’s fiancée, is played by Samantha Morton. What transpires between John and Miss Julie over the course of a reckless night touches on the antagonism between classes as well as between sexes – Miss Julie has the disadvantages of a woman and the advantages of an aristocrat, John the opposite package; Kathleen, a liminal character, is connected to each by solidarity to the weaker class and sex. (That Ullmann’s most recent high-profile success was a stage production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett, another canonical theatre piece concerning the pedestal-toppling power of desire, must certainly have helped to prepare her for Miss Julie.)

The adaptation is Ullmann’s own, and it has been done with purpose and intelligence. The action, confined to the manor’s kitchen in the play, has been opened up to incorporate the servants’ quarters and the grounds of the estate – the latter features in a sort of overture in which we see Miss Julie as a little girl wandering among the greenery, as well as in a coda in which we follow her in her final walk out of the kitchen door, concluding in a rapturous image that suggests the pre-Raphaelites. Unlike Alf Sjöberg’s 1951 production, Ullmann’s Miss Julie has no recourse to picturesque peasantry or incidental characters – we are trapped with the trio, who are trapped with each other. (Sjöberg’s film was shot by one Göran Strindberg, a relation – the parochial smallness of the Swedish industry cannot be overstated.) All references to Miss Julie’s previous betrothal, to her or Jean’s bloodlines as keys to their actions and to her reckless boldness being occasioned by menstrual madness have been heavily altered or removed altogether.

Strindberg’s dramas of this period tend to be structured as a slow simmer built to a boiling-point – at the Brooklyn Academy of Music I saw an Alan Rickman production of Strindberg’s 1889 play Creditors with Tom Burke and Owen Teale in which the entire cast appeared to be on the verge of thrombosis by the time the curtain was ready to fall – and Ullmann’s Miss Julie is, similarly, a harrowing affair, not to mention much the most bibulous version of the material I’ve seen, with the judgement-impairing effects of each dram visible on the way to overflow. It’s a gladiatorial encounter, and by the red-eyed end of John and Julie’s sleepless night, you have the feeling of looking at people who’ve been crawling on hand and knee through rending thickets.

However antagonistic Bergman’s relationship with Strindberg may have been, there must inevitably be an additional wrinkle to Ullmann’s reckoning with Miss Julie, for Ullmann is of course a woman, and anyone who has read her autobiography Changing knows she’s a woman acutely aware of the particular challenges of the female artist. In contending with Strindberg, Ullmann is approaching a sworn enemy of her sex. Molly Haskell, in her groundbreaking 1974 study From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, encapsulated the general consensus when she referred to Strindberg as a ‘legendary misogynist’, and although this necessarily succinct judgement simplifies the author’s rather more complex and contradictory opinions, it’s sufficient to say that the man who once wrote that the female of the species was ‘useful only as ovary and womb’ is what the young folks today like to call a ‘problematic’ figure. But, as Haskell observed, it is often the director who loves or worships women who’s most to be suspected, and in voicing and interrogating his own fear and hostility towards women in a Victorian society that claimed to revere them despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, Strindberg tacitly challenged the myth of the ‘weaker sex’, revealing the barely suppressed violence governing male-female relations. In expressing his own misogyny, he also exposed that of society at large, and gave the whole game away. None of which is to reclaim Strindberg as any sort of feminist, but only to say that he was an artist of the first order, and a hypersensitive medium for truths whose full implication future generations would wrestle with. Such a contentious, irascible artist demands not cautious, faithful interpretation but confrontation, and he has found his match.

Ullmann, with her Russian cinematographer Mikhail Krichman (Elena, Leviathan), gives a masterclass in mise en scène determined by the rigid social system of decorum – the physical toll exerted by violating it; the momentary, emboldened giddiness that follows the overturning of taboo; and the dangerous, unforeseeable psychological after-effects of the upending transgression, which removes the keystone holding together an entire worldview. Under the hard, fixed gaze of Chastain’s Miss Julie, Farrell’s John can at first only nervously dart his eyes this way and that, and he has a marvellous moment early on when, invited to enter the main hall of the manor by Miss Julie, he stops dead at the threshold as if bouncing off a force field. It’s an instant to be treasured, along with Chastain’s unsteady, wounded walk after her deflowering; or her first, abject drop to the kitchen floor, a marionette with strings clipped. Both performances are what is described as awards-worthy, which is perhaps why the US distributor thought to dump Miss Julie into the December scrum, where it disappeared without trace. The same absurd, unexamined prejudices against ‘filmed theatre’ that dogged Bergman throughout his career may also have played a part in the dismissal of Ullmann’s film – but there isn’t a better piece of pure cinema out there.
Nick Pinkerton, Sight & Sound, October 2015

Directed by: Liv Ullmann
©: Maipo Film AS, Miss Julie Limited, Subotica Limited, Senorita Films SAS
Production Company: Norwegian Film Institute
With the participation of: Bord Scannán Na hÉireann/The Irish Film Board, Northern Ireland Screen
Presented by: Maipo Film, Apocalypse Films Company, Senorita Films, Subotica
In association with: Media House Capital, Altaris Partners
International Sales: Wild Bunch
Executive Producers: Julia Balaeskoul Nusseibeh, Aaron L. Gilbert,John Raymonds, Christian Baumard, Alain Kappauff, Paul Zischler, Peter Garde, Lutz Heineking Jr, Bastie Griese, Marco Gilles
Co-executive Producers: Margot Hand, Patrick Murray
Produced by: Synnøve HØrsdal, Oliver Dungey, Teun Hilte
Co-produced by: Tristan Orpen Lynch, Aoife O’Sullivan, Rita Dagher
Line Producer: Nina B. Andersson
Production Manager: Amanda Black
Production Co-ordinators: Katrina McBriarty, Zara Hamill
Head Accountant: Tove Mar
Location Manager: Christopher Myers
Post-production Supervisor: Claire McGrane
1st Assistant Director: Peter Baekkel
2nd Assistant Director: Stephen Darragh
3rd Assistant Director: Hussain Yasin
Script Continuity: Madeleine Fant
Written by: Liv Ullmann
Adapted from the play by: August Strindberg
Script Consultant: Barbara Ball
Director of Photography: Mikhail Krichman
Focus Puller: Andy Gardner
Clapper Loader: Jamie Jackson
Gaffer: Brian Beamont
Key Grip: Ian Buckley
Grip: Liam Taylor
Crane Grip: Philip Murphy
Stills Photographer: Neil Davidson, Helen Sloan
Special Effects Supervisor: Nick Morton
Editor: Michal Leszczylowski
Assistant Editors: Enno Ladwig, Dmitry Trakovsky
Post-production Facilities: Windmill Lane Pictures
Head of Post-production: Tim Morris
Digital Intermediate Colourist: Dave Hughes
Online Editor: Robbie O’Farrell
Title Design: Fred Burdy
Head of Visual Effects: Ciaran Crowley
CGI: Barry Lawless
Production Design: Caroline Amies
Supervising Art Director: Paul Kirby
Art Director: Heather Greenlees
Standby Art Director: Antonia Lowe
Production Buyer: Judy Ducker
Props Master: Paul Stewart
Costume Design: Consolata Boyle
Assistant Costume Designers: Rosie Grant, Richard Cooke
Costume Supervisor: Allan Birkett
Make-up Design: Siw Järbyn
Hair and Make-up Artist: Liz Boston
Violin: Arve Tellefsen
Cello: Truls Mørk
Piano: Håvard Gimse
Irish Folk Music – Bodhrán: Martin O’Neill
Irish Folk Music – Flute: Tom Doorley
Irish Folk Music – Fiddle: Daire Bracken
Irish Folk Music – Accordion: Benny McCarthy
Recording Producer: Morten Lindberg
Music Editor: Morten Lindberg
Sound Design: Stefan Henrix
Production Sound Mixer: Ronan Hill
Boom Operator: Simon Kerr
Sound Assistant: Daniel McCabe
Re-recording Mixers: Michelle Cunniffe, Steve Fanagan
Supervising Sound Editor: Stefan Henrix
Supervising Dialogue Editor: Peter Blayney
Additional Dialogue Editor: Fionán Higgins
ADR Recordists: Steven Maher, Michael Miller
ADR Voice Casting: Tommy Ellis
Foley Artist: Caoimhe Doyle
Foley Recordist: Jean McGrath
Foley Editor: Eoghan McDonnell
Historical Consultant: Terence Dooley
Dialogue Coach: Joan Washington
Animal Wranglers: Jill Clark, Charlotte Wilde

Jessica Chastain (Miss Julie)
Colin Farrell (John)
Samantha Morton (Kathleen)
Nora McMenamy (little Miss Julie)

Norway-UK-France-Ireland 2014
130 mins

The Wayward Girl (Ung flukt)
Mon 28 Mar 18:10 (+ pre-recorded intro by Invisible Women, Archive Activists); Thu 21 Apr 18:20 (+ intro by Anna Smith, film critic and broadcaster)
Tue 29 Mar 14:30; Wed 30 Mar 20:50 (+ intro by Tricia Tuttle, BFI Festivals Director); Fri 8 Apr 20:40 (+ intro by Liv Ullmann); Sun 17 Apr 18:40; Mon 25 Apr 20:50
Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten)
Sat 2 Apr 20:45; Sat 9 Apr 12:10 (+ Q&A with Liv Ullmann); Mon 18 Apr 18:20; Tue 26 Apr 18:10 (+ extended intro by Melanie Iredale, Director, Birds’ Eye View)
Shame (Skammen)
Tue 5 Apr 20:45 (+ intro by Catharine Des Forges, Director, Independent Cinema Office); Wed 13 Apr 18:10; Wed 27 Apr 18:00
The Passion of Anna (En passion)
Thu 7 Apr 18:15; Thu 14 Apr 18:10 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer at Large); Sat 23 Apr 14:20
Faithless (Trolösa)
Sat 9 Apr 18:15 (+ extended intro by Liv Ullmann); Sat 23 Apr 16:40 (+ intro by Nellie Alston, freelance programmer and member of T A P E Collective); Wed 27 Apr 20:00
Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap)
Sun 10 Apr 17:40; Sat 30 Apr 17:15
Tue 12 Apr 20:40; Wed 20 Apr 18:20
The Emigrants (Utvandrarna)
Sat 16 Apr 14:10 (+ intro by Sarah Lutton, season programmer); Sun 24 Apr 13:45
The New Land (Nybyggarna)
Sat 16 Apr 18:50; Sat 30 Apr 12:40
Face to Face (Ansikte mot ansikte) + intro by Sarah Lutton, season programmer
Sun 17 Apr 14:15
Tue 19 Apr 18:20; Sat 30 Apr 20:50
Miss Julie
Sun 24 Apr 17:50; Fri 29 Apr 20:20 (+ intro by Elaine Wong, short film programmer, BFI London Film Festival)

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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