Late 19th century. The young miss Julie lives in a mansion with her father. She has recently broken up her engagement but is attracted to one of the servants, Jean. They spend the midsummer night together, telling memories and their dreams to each other. Realizing that an affair between a man of the people and an aristocrat is impossible, they plan to escape to Switzerland.
Miss Julie (1951)
A famously speedy and turbulent writer, Strindberg explored all avenues of both fiction and autobiography but is most revered for his stage work, with this one falling in between his two other most famous plays, The Father (1886) and Creditors (1888). Sjöberg had successfully staged the play in 1950, which prompted the idea to translate it to film. On stage the action takes place entirely in the house's kitchen, but the film smartly opens it up to other areas of the estate for a more cinematic feel.
Furthermore, the play only features three characters as opposed to the numerous additional supporting and bit roles seen in the film. Cast in the title role, Anita Björk had been acting for less than a decade and remained active in Swedish cinema, with a brief detour into Hollywood filmmaking with Night People opposite Gregory Peck in 1954. Cast as Jean, Ulf Palme had been acting for seven years longer than his leading lady and would work with Sjöberg again two years later on Barabbas. Oddly enough, one of his most famous roles in one people have never had a chance to see: a pivotal part in Jerry Lewis's still-unreleased The Day the Clown Cried (1972). Perhaps the most unusual participant in the film is its cinematographer, Göran Strindberg, whose grandfather was the playwright's cousin. Though he worked for less than two decades, he was extremely prolific with well over sixty Swedish films to his credit.
The film proved to be popular in Europe, nabbing the Grand Prix at Cannes (in a tie with Miracle in Milan). That made it a natural choice for expedient export, with an American release following soon after. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times found it "a surprisingly fascinating film... the playing of it has hypnotic charm," while Newsweek noted that "Anita Björk suggests the young Garbo." (An amusing connection, as Sjöberg was actually Garbo's classmate at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Academy.) The film was released roadshow style in the United States by Trans Global Pictures, who had just scored a hit on the art house circuit with Max Ophüls' La Ronde.
Though Swedish cinema was about to be overtaken by Ingmar Bergman and company, Sjöberg continued to direct as well and even made another Strindberg adaptation, The Father (1969). The play has continued to enjoy a long life on the stage (including a revival by Ingmar Bergman in 1985) and on the screen, including a 1999 version by Mike Figgis (which retains the kitchen-only setting), a lavish Swedish production in 2013, and a Liv Ullmann-directed adaptation in 2014 with Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell. However, the Sjöberg film remains the definitive screeb version to date as well as a textbook example of how to adapt a confined play into a vibrant, relevant work of filmic art.
By Nathaniel Thompson
Miss Julie (1951)
Miss Julie - MISS JULIE - The Acclaimed 1951 Swedish Film Adaptation of August Strindberg's Play on DVD
Synopsis: Count Carl (Anders Henrikson) doesn't attend the all-night servant's party held on his estate because he's busy trying to patch up the broken engagement of his willful, capricious daughter, Miss Julie (Anita Björk) to a wealthy neighbor (Kurt-Olof Sundström). Julie makes a spectacle of herself at the servant's party, flirting dangerously with head butler Jean (Ulf Palme). Jean is more or less engaged to Kristen, the cook (Märta Dorff), who goes to sleep unaware that Jean and Julie are spending the night together. The lovers tell each other of their backgrounds. Jean's dream is to break free of his servitude and take Miss Julie for his own. Julie spent a strange childhood under an unbalanced, rebellious mother, who refused to marry the Count and tried to raise Julie as a boy. As the dawn approaches Jean convinces Julie to steal money from her father and run away with him.
The 1888 play Miss Julie has become one of the world's most performed and respected stage works. Banned in Sweden for almost twenty years, the tale of class conflict and sexual abandon had been filmed numerous times from the silent era onward. Alf Sjöberg's 1951 version is considered the most successful adaptation to date.
The stage original of Miss Julie takes place entirely in one set, the kitchen of a manor house. Alf Sjöberg allows his characters to roam the grounds of the estate while he interprets the play in cinematic terms. The film begins with farm workers raising a Maypole in celebration; Miss Julie is introduced dancing with her servants, who gossip about her scandalous behavior. Much of the drama still takes place in the manor kitchen but Julie and the brooding Jean now wander through the property while reminiscing about their childhood experiences. The sensual twilight of the Swedish summer night takes on an active role, encouraging the lovers to forget their social positions and break the rules of propriety.
Alf Sjöberg's expressive visual ideas enlarge the play in other ways as well. To avoid the accusing eyes of the partygoers, Julie and Jean row down a misty stream, escaping into an illusion of freedom. Sjöberg renders Jean and Julie's contrasting dreams via special effects similar to those in Henry Hathaway's surrealist Peter Ibbetson (1934. As Julie speaks of her dreams of degradation, we see her plunging downward in free fall. When Jean's dream alludes to his desire for Julie, a corresponding ghostly visual pictures him climbing high into a tree for forbidden fruit.
The lead actors make strong, sympathetic impressions as characters warped by a rigid class system. Ulf Palme's Jean is a potential ladies' man frustrated by his subservient position; he has promised himself to the plain but practical cook Kristen yet cannot resist his irrational urge to run away with a woman above his station. The strikingly beautiful Anita Björk breathes life into the brazenly self-destructive Miss Julie. Sjöberg uses flashbacks to illuminate Julie's recent past. She alienates her fiancé by whipping him with a riding crop, as if he were one of her dogs.
The flashbacks to Julie and Jean's deeper past are even more stylized. For some transitions the camera pans from the present to the past in one unbroken take, indicating a psychological causality at work. Jean has humiliating childhood memories of being punished for daring to enter the manor house. The flashbacks delineating Julie's family history have the dreamlike quality of a horror tale. The indulgent Count loses his friends when his independent-minded paramour Berta (Lissi Alandh) refuses to submit to a formal marriage. Berta gives birth to a daughter, laughing because the Count has been denied a son; she mocks her husband by raising Julie in boy's clothing. The unfaithful woman eventually attempts to burn down the manor house, with Julie in it. The image of Countess Berta laughing amid the flames isn't much different from a Barbara Steele Euro-horror classic, or one of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films.
With this background it's no wonder that Julie is confused and rebellious. She steals her father's money but cannot carry out Jean's hopeless escape plan. As the dawn approaches Julie's world has become a chaos, that Sjöberg expresses in visual terms. Miss Julie is an emotional workout and an elegant cinematic experience.
Director Sjöberg's fame was eventually eclipsed by that of the younger Ingmar Bergman; at this point in time the directors were sharing some of the same personnel. To play the newly-written minor character of a drunken groom, Sjöberg used young actor Max von Sydow, in only his second film. The groom repeatedly pops up to discover Miss Julie and Jean in compromising situations.
Criterion presents Miss Julie in beautifully restored condition. The B&W transfer shows only a couple of instances of momentary instability. Once again, Criterion's extras provide an extended understanding of a worthy classic. In place of a commentary, film historian Peter Cowie narrates an insightful and well-organized extended video essay. An older TV interview records director Sjöberg discussing his work.
Even more impressive is a feature-length 2006 Swedish television documentary on the controversial playwright August Strindberg and the history of Miss Julie on stage and film. The play and Strindberg are analyzed at length, with at least one outspoken critic rejecting Strindberg's psychological approach as a male writer's sexist fantasy. A new stage presentation is observed from rehearsals to opening night. Its 'new' Julie is greeted backstage by Anita Björk and Bibi Andersson, who performed the play on television. All three 'Julies' talk about the role in interview footage.
An original American trailer contains no Swedish dialogue, concentrating instead on cameraman Göran Strindberg's beautiful images. Peter Matthews and Birgitta Steene contribute essays to an insert booklet. Criterion's disc producer is Debra McClutchy.
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by Glenn Erickson