r e v i e w // m i s s j u l i e

nb. written in 2014, aged 20, for sinescreen magazine (published in print)

august strindberg was a morbid misogynist.

for the swedish playwright, women were no more than weak and primitive forms of human being. such prejudices came to epitomise his distinct – if discriminatory – voice, while his politically charged plays continue to stand as some of the most prominent and interesting examples of scandinavian theatre.

a campaigner of naturalism, strindberg insisted his body of work call upon a contemporary mind. straying from his romantic predecessors, he implored his audiences to recognise the degeneracy of his female characters and regard them with indifference or contempt.

fast-forward to 2015, and danish writer/director, liv ullman has exposed the dramatist’s ignorance and naivety.

with her cinematic adaptation of miss julie – arguably one of strindberg’s most infamous and essential works – ullman contradicts and undermines his oppressive patriarchal ideologies. while the feature may not stand alone as a masterful, artistic or even entertaining example of the medium, what gives ullman’s creation an impactful punch is her individual interpretation and critique of the iconic source texts.

set on midsummer night, the tale documents the events of an inappropriate and exploitative sexual encounter shared between the eponymous countess and john, the resident valet. an attack on aristocracy and bourgeois social structures, the narrative presents itself as an intense battle for power between the two leads.

julie embodies strindberg’s own embittered loathing of the upper classes, while his text presents her as a commodification of vice and virtue. however, his version of the valet – the “founder of the species” – is resilient, resourceful and evolutionary.

with the revised development of her own characters, ullman scrutinises strindberg with definitively modern eyes. her miss julie is a battle between brains and braun, wits and male bits, in which there is no winner.

her julie and john are unable to understand society, each other, and ultimately, their own selves, while their struggle for superiority masks their inability to harness control of their own identities. within it’s own context, strindberg’s characterisation may have established environmental truths; however, ullman presents characters that embody inaccurate and socially constructed gender-stereotypes.

miss-julie

julie, played by a whimsical jessica chastain, is hysterical, erratic and an unconvincing seductress, caught between her dominance as an aristocrat and her self-imposed submissiveness as a lover. between the wordplay and shifting facades, it is difficult to decipher which of her masks is real. just as she is unable to perceive situations for what they really are, she is unable to know herself completely and lacks awareness of her own intentions.

to julie, her sardonic and sadistic orders as lady of the house are enough to off-set her vulnerability beneath the sheets. her complex image of herself is juxtaposed with that of her lover, and her instability is provoked with the events of their fornication.

on the other hand, john – portrayed by an angst-ridden and agitated colin farrell – is the classic emotional abuser, the stunted male who believes his genitals are an extension of his dominance. sentimental spiel and feigned empathy are mechanisms he uses to attract his bourgeois counterpart, and while he elevates julie outside of the bedroom, he takes great gratification in degrading her behind the locked door.

for john, the physical dominance and aggression he displays as a lover allude to his own beliefs of what it means to be a man.

just as strindberg drew inspiration from darwinism, ullman’s two-hour satirical and socio-political seminar follows existential and fatalistic discourse.

the director ponders over such gender-imbalance and exposes flaws within both sexes, exhibited within their own warped opinion of one another that continues to plague our present day.

in an ironic twist, ullman addresses how this attitude lends itself to the film industry, with women degraded before a camera while men are sensationalised. this is perfectly surmised with her refusal to incorporate a gratuitous sex scene, which she replaces with a gruesome post-act reality.

as julie sits, abandoned, on the bed, left to tend to the blood that has spawned from between her legs, ullman flips cinematic voyeurism on its head, and reminds us of the ways in which sex is often used as a weapon; can be an act of both physical and emotional violence against women.

equally, while she addresses that women should be liberated sexually, and entitled to proposition as many men as they choose, she reminds us that to sleep with a man who does not respect us will trap us in a cycle of regression.

ullman arguably implores both genders to understand that women can differentiate between sex and love, yet that does not mean that one should always exist without the other.

ultimately, ullman highlights a definitive difference between vulnerability and weakness, which holds relevance for both sexes.

the film showcases the implications of elevating one gender and degrading another, which is why the campaign for balance must remain so, and not evolve into a fight for supremacy as shown within this fiction. As ullman has professed in interviews, this film is an example of “how not to behave.”

miss-julie-2014-003-miss-julie-on-knees-before-john-in-kitchen

there are, of course, flaws with the piece. ullman’s homage to strindberg’s naturalism is sometimes stilted and self-conscious, other times too melodramatic.

strindberg’s rebuffed interval is mirrored in ullman’s minimal change of setting, yet the ambience is more awkwardly oppressive than cleverly claustrophobic – this effect uncharacteristically undermines the potential of the cinematic medium.

the plot gathers momentum with strindberg’s original static, yet erratic energy; however, while the dialogue is undoubtedly the star of the piece, show and tell teeters wildly off balance. in future, ullman must allow her characters time to breathe and brood.

however, to consider ullman’s feature solely within the confines of technicalities and cinematic conventions is to trivialise the purpose of her fiction. with this piece, the director offers refreshing and exhilarating risk-taking, while her cross-cultural examination of discernibly modern themes is delivered with intellect and integrity.

as a filmmaker, ullman has utilised her own position of power, and with the film’s beautiful poignant final scene, she successfully secures this picture as a call for change, asking our current society to abandon the out-dated and stigmatised rhetoric that we continue to exhaust.


nb. written in 2014, aged 20, for sinescreen magazine (published in print)
images attributed to BFI website