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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Miss Julie

Director: Alf Sjöberg
Country: Sweden
Year: 1951

Background

August Strindberg was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1849. While his father Carl was a successful shipping agent, his mother Nora was a domestic servant. This fact was referenced in the title of Strindberg’s autobiographical novel, Son of a Servant, and is a key to contextualizing his later work, including Miss Julie, the play on which today’s film is based.

In 1871, an anarcho-socialist group, known as the Paris Commune, briefly seized control of France’s federal government. They enacted several interesting decrees, including the formal separation of church and state, the abolition of night work in bakeries, and the provision of pensions for unmarried companions of National Guardsmen. Of course, it all ended in tears. This episode prompted a political awakening in Strindberg, who began to see the world in terms of class warfare. I’m totally synopsizing here, so I recommend you do some further research on this whole Paris Commune thing. Not my area of expertise. Enough said.

Although his plays often featured political undertones, he was not so much a political writer as an bitter, hypersensitive, paranoid neurotic who heaped his voluminous scorn on everything he didn’t like, which grew to include “the military, the church, the monarchy, the politicians, the stingy publishers, the incompetent reviewers, the narrow-minded, the idiots…” Other recipients of Strindberg’s excoriating criticism (usually via outlandish caricature in his plays) included Jews, and former friends who had pissed him off.

Strindberg originally railed against the unjust treatment of women, but later campaigned just as loudly against giving women the right to vote, calling them “half-apes… mad… criminal, instinctively evil animals.”

Strindberg was married three times, produced a hundred or so abstract paintings, was a professional telegrapher and amateur alchemist, and claimed to have cast black magic spells on his daughter. He died in 1912, at the age of 63.

Miss Julie has been filmed at least seven times; the version we’re watching today was the second film version, this time directed by renowned Swedish stage director, Alf Sjöberg. Not much to tell about Alf, except that he died in a car accident in 1980. He will be missed, I’m sure.

Although it won the Cannes Grand Prix, and despite the fact that it was based on a play over six decades old, Miss Julie‘s scandalous content provoked quite a stir when it was released in 1951. In fact, a case was brought before the supreme court of my home state, Massachusetts, attempting to prevent it from being shown in a Cambridge theater (a theater owned, interestingly, by two of the guys who founded Janus Films). Being comprised of wise and learned gentlemen, the court found in favor of the defendant, and Massachusetts audiences were free to enjoy Strindberg’s tale of inter-class boot-knocking, attempted infanticide, arson, and suicide by straight razor.

Here’s a great quote from the Janus article: “Miss Julie envisions a terrifying plane of entrapment where the only way out of an entrenched class system seems to be death.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: Miss Julie. Enjoy!

Synopsis

A woman feeds a bird in a cage, which I’m betting is symbolic. She looks out the window warily, killing time during the titles.

The action shifts to a Midsummer’s Eve party, with the pagan, nature-worshipping common folk raising something like a maypole, dancing joyfully, and tumbling down a grassy hill to the barn. All of this is watched by the regal, high-born woman in the window, the titular Miss Julie. Yes, I said “titular.”

julie_beautiful

A well-dressed man rides a horse-drawn carriage along a wooded lane, past ominous statues which appear to be silently judging him. The man is unhappy. He arrives at the barn dance. “Jean, you promised!” a woman hisses as he enters. This is Viola, who has designs on Jean, even though he is engaged to the scullery maid. (I don’t know if she is actually the scullery maid, or even what a scullery maid is, exactly, but it sounds right.) Tension is evident. Miss Julie, who is somewhat unexpectedly present at the servants’ party, initially dances with Jean, but then pushes him away haughtily and dances with another man in his stead. The guests laugh at poor, stupid Jean.

Back at the house, Jean confides in the scullery maid: “Miss Julie’s crazy again this evening!” “She always has been,” agrees his fiancé, the scullery maid, whose name is Kristin. “Even more so now that the engagement’s off.” Ha! The plot thickens! There is an oblique conversation regarding a scandal with Miss Julie’s (ex-)fiancé, and guess what? Miss Julie is listening just around the corner! By the end of this scene, relationships have become clearer: Jean is actually a servant in the house. Miss Julie is supposed to be at a dinner party with her father and her (ex-)fiancé, not slumming at a Midsummer’s Eve party with the help.

Also, I think Jean has a thing for Miss Julie.

Hey – Max Von Sydow! He plays another servant, maybe a stablemaster? I love his scene in Hannah and her Sisters where he says, “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.” Also in Flash Gordon when he says, “Pathetic Earthlings, hurling your bodies out into the void…” In this film, however, he has very few lines and appears to be mildly autistic.

Angered by the overheard conversation, Miss Julie commandeers a horse and wagon and speeds off to belatedly join her father and others of her rightful class.

This is what I can gather so far: Viola has designs on Jean. Jean is engaged to Kristin, but appears to be hung up on Miss Julie. Miss Julie was previously engaged to someone of her own class, but that was derailed by an untold scandal. Diana (another servant?) betrayed Miss Julie in some unspecified way. Now we’re in a flashback to the day of that betrayal, and the breaking of the engagement…

Jean, Miss Julie, and a useless rich dandy boy I’m guessing is Miss Julie’s (soon-to-be-ex-)fiancé are riding horseback, followed by their dogs. My mistake: Diana is actually Miss Julie’s dog, and she betrayed her master primarily by sniffing the buttholes of lower-class dogs.

The riders stop by a pond, and Julie demands that Jean wade out into the water and bring her back a lily-flower.

While he complies, Julie beats Diana mercilessly. That’ll teach her to sniff lower-class buttholes! Seriously, though, someone needs to call in the Dog Whisperer. Cesar would get Miss Julie straightened out toot-sweet.

Julie’s fiancé objects to the beating, but she demonstrates the efficacy of her training methods by making Diana jump over her riding crop several times. She then makes her fiancé do the same. After a couple of jumps, though, he seizes the riding crop, breaks it over his knee, and the engagement is OFF! I can hardly blame him.

Back in the present, Julie is riding to the dinner party at which her (ex-)fiancé will be present. Awkward! But then she changes her mind and heads back to the house, where she taunts Jean a second time! While giving Diana a lower-class-dog-repelling tincture, Miss Julie spies Viola romping in the hay with Ming the Merciless. She orders Jean to dance with her, to pour her a beer, to kiss her shoe. Miss Julie is an insufferable little bitch, not to put too fine a point on it.

Jean and Julie dance in the moonlight by the maypole (or whatever it is).

“Everything is just muck floating on the water until it sinks,” proclaims Julie, in possibly my favorite line of dialogue, ever. She tells Jean about a recurring dream, in which she is trapped in a high place, and eventually falls down, further and further, perhaps to the bottom of the ocean. The dream ends with a swan. What does it all mean? Ah, the painful lives of the landed gentry.

Jean, on the other hand, dreams of wanting to climb a tall tree in order to steal some golden eggs. Symbolism! “I’ve never reached the top,” he says. “But someday I will.”

Indeed, Jean. Indeed you will.

Ming the Merciless is getting drunk by a gazebo, heartbroken over the fickle Viola.

Julie picks some lint out of Jean’s eye (?) and orders him to kiss her hand. She presses her corseted body against his in a most inappropriate manner, given their respective stations. Jean calls her a child, playing dangerous games, but admits under duress that she is the only woman he has ever loved.

Jean points to a dilapidated shack on the far side of the lake. “That is the home I shared with seven siblings and a pig,” he says, recounting a poignant tale of his poverty-stricken childhood. He stole apples from Julie’s father’s orchard. He hid in Julie’s family’s outhouse, while a nun apparently took a dump on his head. Yes, really. And he loved little Miss Julie, so radiant in her finery, so different from little Jean, slack-jawed and covered in human feces.

The story ends with little Jean almost drowning in the river, and then receiving a violent public belt-thrashing.

“It must be a dreadful misfortune to be poor,” marvels Miss Julie.

Indeed, Miss Julie. Indeed it is.

Jean, fearing the consequences if he is seen with Miss Julie, rows across the lake with her in a small boat. “My room!” he says. “There’s no other choice!” Jean promises to shoot his friends if they burst in (?), but Julie begs him to shoot her instead. Ah, the desperate passions of the landed gentry! Did I say that already?

Later, it appears that Julie and Jean have, ah, how shall I say… had sexual intercourse. We know this because her hair is mussed and the ribbon around her throat is undone.

“What shall we do now?” Julie asks, forlorn, and Jean responds that they have no choice but to run away to Switzerland and start a hotel. Which would not have been my first response, not even in my top five, but, hey – different cultures and whatnot. Clearly, a line has been crossed, and there will be hell to pay. Swiss hotels must be purchased!

“Just tell me you love me,” begs Julie, but Jean is reluctant. Soon enough, it becomes clear that Jean is hoping Julie will be his ticket out of this burg. “I possess nothing!” she protests. “Well, then, that’s off,” says Jean. “Everything will go on as before.”

“My God, what have I done?” laments Miss Julie. “A servant is a servant!” she shouts, to which Jean responds calmly: “A whore is a whore.” Zing!

After a bit more “get on your knees, lackey!” “never, you filthy slut!!” back-and-forth, they decide maybe the hotel idea was a good one, after all, and Jean goes to rustle up a horse and carriage from Ming the Merciless.

Before Jean can make the arrangements, Miss Julie gets rip-roaring drunk. Unfortunately, she’s one of those pushy, melancholy drunks who insist on telling you their life story, even though you keep pointedly looking at your watch and saying things like, “Gosh, I didn’t realize it was so late…”

Her parents lived in sin, and were summarily shunned by the community. Serves them right, I say. Anyway, Mum, who looked a bit like Frida Kahlo with less facial hair, got resentfully pregnant and then pretended to commit suicide. Those pregnancy hormones are powerful things, I’m telling you. Mum raised Julie to be a miserable little tomboy feminist, until Dad intervened and gave her back her Raggedy Ann doll. This was the beginning of the end, of course. Dad tried to re-establish some traditional family values around the estate, but Mum was having none of it and set the house on fire. After some plot twists right out of a Zalman King erotic thriller, Dad tried (unsuccessfully) to end it all with a musket to his cranium, right in front of his daughter.

No wonder Miss Julie is such a handful!

Oh, that birdcage in the first scene? An engagement gift from Julie’s fiancé, the county attorney.

Back in the present, Miss Julie points out that a man who dishonors a woman owes her a little something in return. Jean agrees, and throws a coin on the table. “I won’t be in debt to anyone,” he sneers. Zing! Still convinced that they have no choice but to flee, Jean orders Julie to scrape up some money, and be quick about it, woman! Julie obediently takes a scimitar to her father’s locked desk. She also writes Dad a goodbye note, with full details RE: her fall into sinful class-mixing. Jean downs a couple of brews and admits his infidelity to Kristin (remember her?).

Over at the rich folks’ party, Dad (also known as The Count) pleads with Julie’s ex-fiancé: “Give her one last chance.” Unnamed fiancé agrees: “I must see her one more time!” Given the fact that the debauched Miss Julie and her low-born lover are about to depart in shame for parts unknown, this may be difficult and/or awkward.

Back at the ranch, Kristin is bemoaning the infidelity of her fiancé, Julie is moping, and Jean is beheading her pet bird with a hatchet. Yes, really.

“Kill me too!” wails Julie, half out of her gourd. “I curse the day I was born!” She says some other stuff, like: “I’d like to see your whole sex floating in a sea of blood!” and “Cur! You wear my collar!” and so on, all of it decidedly unpleasant.

The Count arrives home, the various crimes of theft, carnality, and class-mixing are discovered, and he responds in the expected way, by once again placing the musket against his temple, and aiming more carefully this time. Oh wait… no, false alarm. That was all in Miss Julie’s overheated imagination. Psych!

But then, in a (not very) shocking twist, the Count does arrive, and the illicit lovers now find themselves unable to flee, paralyzed by guilt and by dysfunctional allegiance to the Count. Seeing no other option, Miss Julie slits her own throat.

Ba-da-BING!

What I Liked

Miss Julie is something like Swept Away as written by one of the Brontë sisters, co-directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman. The Janus book calls it “a film that ravages everything in its path,” and that about covers it. Based solely on the film’s title, and having done no prior research, I was expecting a light comedy about a Swedish schoolteacher. Once I re-oriented myself to the scorched-earth class and gender warfare that actually comprises the plot of Miss Julie, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

It is ludicrously melodramatic, and undeniably dated, but presented with such righteous anger, such fire-and-brimstone conviction that I ultimately succumbed. There were scenes that prompted (unintentional) laughter (young Jean escaping from the ornate outhouse, Julie’s mother grinning crazily in the flames), but Miss Julie does have something valid to say (many valid things, actually) about the ways that class and gender inequalities poison human relationships. Besides that, it’s enormously entertaining as pure spectacle. Bizarre camera angles, chiaroscuro lighting, painfully symbolic dream sequences, multiple suicide attempts, hilariously scathing dialogue (“I’d like to see your whole sex in a lake of blood!” etc.) all combine to make Miss Julie delirious, compelling fun.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

For a film which is ostensibly denouncing classism, Miss Julie indulges in a fair bit of classist stereotyping. Several scenes feature grotesque, much-too-close shots of the faces of leering, drunken peasants. Perhaps Sjöberg intended to show us how the rich folk perceive the poor, but it just left me thinking that the servants were moonshine-swilling hillbillies.

Also, for a film which seems at times sympathetic to Miss Julie kicking against repressive, rigid gender roles… there are other moments that are plainly, shockingly regressive. Julie’s mother’s fight for emancipation, to mention just one example, is treated as comedic or, worse, insane.

Should You See It?

If you love: over-the-top melodrama; gothic tales of doomed romance which inevitably end in emotional trauma and death; or scathing dissections of class and gender inequality… then yes. Most modern viewers, however, may be put off by the dated, overheated dialogue and the implausible plot mechanics.

Next: Pandora’s Box

One Comment

  1. A few months ago I had watched a film called “The Piano Teacher” and I reviewed it as saying that the film falls into the genre “Descent Into Madness” – it’s not a genre as popular as, say, “Superhero Action Film” or “Romantic Comedy” – but I hazard to guess that if you were to seriously look around you could find a number of films that would fall into this genre.

    “Miss Julie” is, well, one of them….kinda. Why do I say “kinda?” It’s because you pretty much know from frame one that she’s already coo-coo nutterbeans – the way she hides behind the curtains and watches all the kids and adults dance around the May-Pole. The way she looks and acts you just sort of know this is an M-80 with a short fuse and someone, at some point, is going to light it.

    The story quickly turns to a gentleman (or so I thought) going to a barn dance of some sort. Seems this festival lasts a week, or so, and that everyone at the festival is going to hook up. Think of it as a late 1800’s version of EHarmony.com – but, oh boy they’re not going to like this…Miss Julie refuses to dance with the gentleman and everyone has a good laugh of their expense. Which pisses him off but makes Miss Julie feel a tad empowered.

    Well…we soon find out that this “gentleman” (or so I thought) is actually Miss Julie’s SERVANT (and her father’s “The Count”). She is the woman of the house (mommy’s not around) and she likes to play this fool like he’s a kazoo (and he’s about as smart). Seems, though, that he’s hooked up with the head cook (or something) – a woman who could have been Margaret “Wicked Witch of the West” Hamilton’s sister. So…since she’s a bit, how would you say, ugly…you just know that Mr. Servant Guy and Miss Julie (in all her raging anger and discomfort) are going to be splitting the sheets soon.

    Then the film begins a series of flashbacks mixed with current events mixed (near the end) with some fanciful fantasies of “is this true or not” but circling in and around all this is Miss Julie and her hot angerness.

    Servant guy (Jean) admits that he’s loved Julie from afar since he was a boy (hiding out in a beautiful toilet and crawling through the sewage (why there are four or five seats…I don’t know – do people often defecate together?).

    Other stories told in flashback: Julie and her early engagement that was called off.

    Julie’s mother giving birth to her (instead of the boy the Count wanted) and then forcing her to dress as a boy and do boy chores (while the women did men chores) – causing Miss Julie to go off the deep end.

    Young Jean being beaten after going into the Count’s house to get a peek at Miss Julie.

    Back to the story at hand.

    When one of the servant girls gets angry (or thrown out – I can’t remember which) – she runs into the barn and cries her eyes out – at which point she and the “old guy in the barn” do the deed in the hay. Miss Julie, who wanted to spend some time with Diane (her dog – who she beat after her aborted engagement), ends up getting a big ol’ gander at some good ol’ hay humpin’.

    In the mood, or now more distraught she again meets up with Jean and they have an argument in the old style of “We’re going to argue and fight until we end up making love.” Seems, though, that all you need to create a scandal is a bit of neckin’ in the park gazebo (with naked cherubs) and to be overheard by the “old guy in the barn” (who’s not in the barn at this time, but hanging out by the gazebo).

    With this possible relationship going on and some discussion about how much people know and what has been done with who and how long (there’s a LOT of talk about sex in this film without the word “sex” ever being used) – the citizens get up in arms and go after Jean and Miss Julie. Seems this is verboten and they (he?) could be killed for dipping his wick where he shouldn’t.

    When they hide out in the kitchen (?) Jean’s fiancé (the wicked witch) gets REALLY tired and goes to bed. Then the crowd appears and Jean and Miss Julie do what anyone would do in this situation – they hide and have sex.

    The next morning (?) they have to face facts that they’re persona-non-grata in the tri-state area and should skedaddle their hinds out the door. They’ll escape, start a hotel, live their life. But…there’s the fact that Jean is engaged to the “WW of the W” and Miss Julie has a few more flashbacks to talk about. Oh, and her father will be home any godblessed minute!

    This is when we get the extended flashback of how Miss Julie became the poster child for nut-jobs (Mom and dad were never married! She had to be dressed as a boy! Mom burned the house down! Mom died!). Okay, I get that. You’re now all hot and 19 (or something) and can’t come to grips with all this…I get it (and, frankly, I would probably be nuts, too).

    Still, papa thinks that Miss Julie would still make a good bride for the ex-fiance but he now finds out that some hanky-panky has been going on and after Jean kill’s Julie’s pet bird (they can’t take a bird on the train, what the HELL WAS SHE THINKING?!) – Miss Julie finally goes “round the bend” and kills herself.

    What I liked:

    Where this film excelled, in my opinion, was in its usage of flashbacks.

    The cinematography was outstanding, the story-telling was done VERY well.

    Though the subject matter was a bit of a “downer” I would also like to point out that there were some very funny moments.

    Tons of sex in the film (but all implied).

    What I didn’t like:

    Other than the acting by Jean (who looked like Raul Julia) all the other acting seemed WAY OVER THE TOP. There was no real “arc” for Miss Julie. She’s nuts from the first scene until the last.

    I had a real hard time grasping the scandal of the “Woman of the house hooking up with the servant” aspect of the story. Would the townspeople really show up and destroy the kitchen? I mean…REALLY?

    There was a constant theme of “master v. servant” that also made the film a tad uncomfortable for me. Threatening harm to the woman if she “doesn’t do as she is told” – that I found a bit icky.

    Overall:

    Watch for the unique story telling and ribald sexuality…that’s all I can really find to recommend this film.

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