Richard Jonathan

Richard Jonathan is the author of the literary novel Mara, Marietta: A Love Story in 77 Bedrooms

Brassaï, Couple d’amoureux dans un petit café, 1932


In this essay I will argue that Mike Figgis’ film version of Miss Julie (1999) is at once more Strindbergian and more cinematic than the version by Liv Ullmann (2014). I will conduct an analysis to demonstrate concretely why this is the case. In a parallel line of argument, I will articulate the reasons why I find the Figgis film to be a far more profound interpretation of Miss Julie than the Ullmann one. I am aware that, as George Steiner asserts, ‘an aesthetic is a politics of taste that seeks to systematize a bent of sensibility to which there can be neither proof nor dis-proof’ and that ‘no aesthetic proposition can be termed either “right” or “wrong”—the sole appropriate response is personal assent or dissent’.1 Nevertheless, dear reader, I aim, through principled argument, to persuade you that however relative and arbitrary aesthetic propositions and value judgements may be, my thesis—that Mike Figgis’ Miss Julie is much better than Liv Ullmann’s—is a solid one, capable of standing up to your severest critical scrutiny.


1 – George Steiner, Real Presences (Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1986) pp. 7-8. Note that this reference is to the transcript of the Leslie Stephen Memorial Lecture delivered by Steiner to the University of Cambridge on 1 November 1985, and not to the book Real Presences (University of Chicago Press/Faber & Faber, 1989) derived from the lecture.

Garry Winogrand, El Morocco, 1955

Moreover, I aim to win your personal assent not out of intellectual vanity, but rather to uphold the values of art in the face of hyperconsumerist pressure to dumb art down. And just to reassure you that I will not be comparing apples and oranges, both Figgis and Ullmann set out to be faithful to the spirit of Strindberg and to make a cinematic adaptation of his play. Using these two criteria—‘Strindbergian’ and ‘cinematic’—as the touchstones of my critical comparison is therefore justified, both as regards my aesthetic proposition and my value judgement. We will proceed as follows: First, I will define ‘Strindbergian’. Second, I will give a few brief indications of what I mean by ‘cinematic’, followed by two longer treatments of the term, one extracted from an article by Martin Scorsese and the other from a book by Suzanne Langer. Third, I will begin the critical comparison of the Figgis and Ullmann versions of Miss Julie with an overview, for each film, of the writing of the film script, the filmmaking style, and the acting. Finally, in two follow-up posts—Miss Julie: Drama of the Sexes, Part 4 & Part 5—I will present my critical comparison via a fine-grained analysis.

Brassaï, Young Couple in a Two-in-One Suit, 1931


For the purposes of our critical comparison, three terms suffice to define ‘Strindbergian’: sex, women and attempt at the tragic. Sex was central in Strindberg’s mindset. One has only to read the biographies by Michael Meyer1 and Sue Prideaux2, for example, or Eivor Martinus’ study, Strindberg and Love,3 for this to become abundantly clear. Strindberg’s attitude to sex was similar to Henry Miller’s—a foundational pleasure of human existence, to be enjoyed as often as possible4—and, like Miller, Strindberg practiced ‘serial monogamy’.5 At certain periods in his life his sleep was regularly punctuated with erotic dreams, recorded, partially in code, in his journals. Such dreams are, of course, a common occurrence, but what’s interesting in Strindberg’s case is that no coitus interruptus came to impede his pleasure. On 13 January 1901, for example, he writes:

‘First telepathic intercourse with B [Harriet Bosse]. I possessed her when she appeared telepathically during the night. Incubus. God deliver me from this passion. 16 January. Possessed her! xxx/x [one ‘x’ for each time]’. (Meyer, pp. 414-15)


1 – Michael Meyer, Strindberg: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1987)
2 – Sue Prideaux, Strindberg: A Life (Yale University Press, 2012)
3 – Eivor Martinus, Strindberg and Love (Amber Lane Press, 2001
4 – Not that Strindberg couldn’t say No: after his separation/divorce from his third wife, Harriet Bosse, they continued to sleep together until Strindberg, against Harriet’s wishes, put a stop to it. ‘Perhaps she enjoyed the sex and only disliked the marriage’, Meyer (p. 454) comments. Strindberg: ‘Row with Harriet. Because I would not go to her in the evening.’ (Meyer, p.474)
5 – Erica Jong, The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (Open Road Media, 2013) p. 98

August Strindberg, Self-Portrait 1, 1886

It is interesting to note that Strindberg’s desire was strongest when he was in the process of breaking up with his wife (he married and divorced three times). It is thus not surprising to find an intense intertwining of aggression and desire in Miss Julie, written in the last week of July and the first week of August, 1888, when Strindberg was at the height of his breakup with Siri von Essen. In this context, I offer two quotes from his correspondence at this time:

Woman, being small and foolish and therefore evil, should be suppressed, like barbarians and thieves. She is useful only as ovary and womb, best of all as a cunt. (Meyer, p. 194)

I am fast approaching epilepsy as a result of celibacy. I could, I suppose, get girls, but where sex is concerned I am an aristocrat. Can you understand my misogyny? Which is only the reverse image of a terrible desire for the other sex. (Meyer, p. 201)

August Strindberg, Self-Portrait 2, 1886

The eroticism in Miss Julie, then, is an expression of Strindberg’s fusion of desire and frustration, anger and aggression. I quote Michael Meyer again:

Where Strindberg broke new ground in Miss Julie was in his boldly realistic treatment of sex. Unlike any dramatist before him, he showed that men and women can hate each other yet be sexually welded, as he still was to Siri. Before Strindberg, sex in drama is something in which only married people or wicked people indulge. Miss Julie’s tragedy is that she does not want to make love with Jean; she does not want to sleep with him; she wants—there is no other word for it—to be fucked by him, like an animal. When it has happened, she despises herself for having allowed it, and him for having done it; but she knows she will want him again; so she sees no alternative but suicide. (Meyer, pp. 196-97)

Given this, a Strindbergian film of Miss Julie must, I contend, find a means to give Jean and Julie’s fuck—two minds enthralled by a transgressive act, two bodies joined by cock and cunt—a weight proportionate to its centrality in the drama.

August Strindberg, Self-Portrait 3, 1886

Beyond the act itself, the ‘sex’ component of ‘Strindbergian’ extends to the ‘war of the sexes’, not in the manner of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday—more like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Indeed, to quote Christian Schiaretti:

Strindberg has an acute awareness of the ontological difference between man and woman. A difference that derives, in my view, primarily from the relationship to the body—infinite in the woman, in her jouissance and procreative potential; finite in the man, in his jouissance and inability to procreate.1

Strindberg was obsessed by sexual difference—as we all are2—but in him, for a variety of reasons, this obsession became all-consuming. In his ‘novel’ The Defence of a Madman, his obsession, many critics aver, brought out the worst in him, whereas in his play Miss Julie, it brought out the best.


1 – Christian Schiaretti, interview on the DVD of his production of Mademoiselle Julie (Théâtre National Populaire), Collection COPAT/CNC, 2012. Translated here by Richard Jonathan.





August Strindberg, Self-Portrait with the Children, 1886

Indeed, Michael Meyer, in an opinion cited approvingly by many Strindberg commentators, wrote:

In the play Sir Bengt’s Wife (1882), Strindberg was writing not about political, religious or social problems, but about sexual relationships and, in particular, the problems that married couples face when love and hatred ride hand in hand. This was Strindberg’s main obsession, and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that, by the severest international standards, he was only a great writer when he was writing about this obsession. It was not until he became disillusioned with marriage, and the sex war replaced social and political matters as his primary theme, that he became a major writer.

Indeed, the 1886-88 sequence of plays Comrades (The Marauders), The Father, Miss Julie and Creditors are ‘a dive into the human soul’,1 as Christian Schiaretti puts it, and have proved to be not only the work of a ‘major writer’, but also the dramatist’s most enduring work.


1 – Christian Schiaretti, interview on the DVD of his production of Mademoiselle Julie (Théâtre National Populaire), Collection COPAT/CNC, 2012. Translated here by Richard Jonathan.

August Strindberg, Self-Portrait with Greta & Karin, 1886

A Strindbergian film of Miss Julie, then, would give full weight to the dramatist’s conception of the sex war. It would be neither a sexual duel as in a screwball comedy nor a couple-in-conflict psychodrama. Instead, as Christian Schiaretti says, the spirit of Hitchcock and the Coen brothers would best preside over a Strindbergian production of Miss Julie:

The question in Strindberg is to know who has killed who, who is going to kill who. At bottom, they’re detective plays. Both Miss Julie and Creditors end in a death, a somewhat sacrificial death, of which there is neither any trace nor, in Creditors, any weapon. In Strindberg, the weapon is the word. That is why when one directs Strindberg, one must not direct as one directs Ibsen, where, to explain the context, one can bring lots of psychology and history into the play. In Strindberg, the question is to kill the other, and to kill him/her with words. It’s the perfect crime, in each case, since it leaves no trace. In the end, Jean would certainly be hanged or given a life sentence, because he remained alone in a room when a death took place. The catastrophic situation in which he finds himself is almost comic. It’s the brothers Coen who would make a very good film of Miss Julie, not Ingmar Bergman. And Hitchcock, of course. Indeed, these Strindberg plays are the work of a voyeur—there’s always someone hidden in the background, as in Hitchcock. And, again as in Hitchcock, there’s always a hot-cold relation to the woman. It’s curious. The women are both strong-minded and sexually exciting, both brainy and tits-and-ass, and switch from one mode to the other very quickly, exactly as in Hitchcock, where the blonde who looks like a doll is in fact a killer.1


1 – Christian Schiaretti, interview on the DVD of his production of Mademoiselle Julie (Théâtre National Populaire), Collection COPAT/CNC, 2012. Translated here by Richard Jonathan.

August Strindberg, Self-Portrait 4, 1886

That, for our purposes, is the ‘sex’ in ‘Strindbergian’. Now for the ‘women’. Countless commentators, including Liv Uilmann,1 have uncritically repeated the cliché that Strindberg is an arch-misogynist. That is not only intellectually lazy, but also artistically counter-productive. It’s as silly as saying Mick Jagger is a woman-hater because he wrote ‘Under My Thumb’ and ‘Stupid Girl’, or that John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’ doesn’t ‘excuse’ the ‘feminicide’ of his ‘Run for Your Life’. Even the stupidest rock ‘n roll fan has the cultural codes to decipher such songs and reject any notion of essentialist misogyny. More’s the pity, then, that even the smartest Strindberg commentators can still pedal such essentialist claims. Indeed, one doesn’t need a graduate degree to see that Strindberg’s ‘misogyny’ is a symptom and, as such, an attempt at self-cure or self-soothing.2 What, then, was Strindberg trying to ‘cure’ or ‘soothe’ in himself via his ‘misogyny’? Four things. First, his discomfort with his own femininity. In a letter he wrote after meeting the Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, for example, he declared: ‘This is the man I have sought for so long; mostly, perhaps, because I am so unmasculine myself’ (Meyer, p. 121). Admirable lucidity. Indeed, Meyer’s biography is peppered with anecdotes from Strindberg’s contemporaries testifying to how ‘feminine’ he was, at least physically, with his Cupid’s bow lips, delicate hands and feet, hairless body and thin voice.


1 – See, for example, Liv Ullmann’s Lincoln Center interview, where she makes the patently absurd claim that ‘Strindberg didn’t like women at all’.


2 – This, of course, is a foundational insight of psychoanalysis.

August Strindberg, Self-Portrait 5, 1886

The second thing Strindberg was trying to ‘cure’ or ‘soothe’ in himself via his ‘misogyny’ was his tendency to idealize women, to put them on a pedestal; a tendency derived, I would argue, from a childhood need for a tender touch that his mother never did meet. That mother—in a gesture that recalls the joke that goes, ‘The food in this restaurant is terrible, and what’s more, the portions are so small!’—died when Strindberg was thirteen. In this regard, Michael Meyer, in his biography, quotes Strindberg (who is writing of himself in the third person):

A desolate longing for his mother stayed with him all his life. Had he come too early into the world, was he an aborted fetus? He never found an answer to this question in books or in life, but the situation remained; he never became himself, he was never liberated, never a complete individual. He remained a mistletoe that could not grow without being supported by a tree. He came frightened into the world and lived in perpetual fear of life and of people. (Meyer, p. 15)

August Strindberg & Siri von Essen playing backgammon , 1886

Meyer then goes on to quote a Swedish critic, Martin Lamm:

Strindberg’s mother had favoured the older children, betrayed him to his father and, as he grew older, seemed to him to be uneducated. With the passage of time, however, he came to create what he called a purified and glorified image of her. Throughout his life he felt a sense of loss and longed for an ideal maternal figure, an ideal maternal embrace, in which his stormy emotions could be cradled to rest. He worshipped his mother in all the women with whom he fell in love during his lifetime. (Meyer, p. 15)

Strindberg’s ‘hatred of women’ always came to the fore when he was in the midst of a marital breakup. That pattern is clear in his own writings as well as in the biographical works concerning him. Now, a sense of psychology suffices to see that his rage against the woman who is leaving him (or has left him) is but the ‘return of the repressed’, namely the rage he felt at his mother for ‘abandoning’ him, the rage that, in a ‘reaction formation’, he had disguised as love.

August Strindberg, Self-Portrait 6, 1886

Third, his poverty, and the strain induced by his struggle to support himself and his children. Though his attitude is rife with contradictions and mauvaise foi, he was nevertheless bitter that his first wife, Siri, was not pulling her weight economically, and this bitterness expressed itself as ‘misogyny’: an attempt to soothe himself via a mix of self-righteousness and denigration, self-pity and abuse.

The fourth and final thing Strindberg was trying to ‘cure’ or ‘soothe’ in himself via his ‘misogyny’ was his vaguely felt sense that the ‘new woman’,1 by destroying his ideal of the female—a faithful woman who loves both to fuck and to nurture—would shatter the foundations of the fantasy that allowed him, one of life’s walking wounded, to function as both man and artist. It is not much of an exaggeration, then, to say that for Strindberg, ‘misogyny’ (along with the compulsion to create) was an existential survival strategy. The fact is, Strindberg loved women, and what is taken for his ‘hatred of women’ is simply the other side of the coin of that love. A director making a film of Miss Julie who integrates the dramatist’s love/hate for women into his or her film is therefore Strindbergian, while one who tries to mitigate the dramatist’s ‘misogyny’ is not.



Edvard Munch, August Strindberg, 1896

That, for our purposes, is the ‘women’ in ‘Strindbergian’. Now for the final element in my definition of that term: attempt at the tragic. Christian Schiaretti, director of the Théâtre National Populaire in Paris, has defined it best:

Strindberg is a dramatist who is more ‘disruptive’ than both Ibsen and Chekhov. Ibsen is aligned with the flow of history, while Chekhov gives us an ‘impressionistic’ history full of precautions (the relativity of truth, the plurality of interpretations). Strindberg, for his part, knifes his way forward, so to speak. He seeks the tragic, and thus ontological antagonism, however ‘politically incorrect’ that may be. His ‘political incorrectness’ can be seen not only in the way he talks about women, but also in the way he shows men’s weaknesses, their abysmal mediocrity. This, along with his vision of impending darkness and of the permanence of the structural rivalry between men and women, explain why, unlike Ibsen, he will never fit into the boxes of the politically correct nor, unlike Chekhov, into the mould of those who hedge their bets.

Edvard Munch, Strindberg in Hospital, 1896

Christian Schiaretti continues:

For these reasons, among others, Strindberg’s plays are staged much less frequently that those of Ibsen and Chekhov. Moreover, because the characters are treated as ‘types’, they are usually staged badly. So the director will have Jean played as an inveterate seducer, a phenomenon of nature, a ‘walking erection’—in short, as a proto-Lady Chatterley’s lover. The fact is, however, Jean has absolutely nothing in common with the D.H. Lawrence character. As for Julie, directors usually have the actress play her hysterically. So the acting, therefore, becomes convulsive.

These ‘right-thinking’ approaches to the staging of Strindberg are completely sterile today. The Strindbergian question is the question of a dramatist who is carefully constructing his play and attempting to attain the tragic. Miss Julie is a play constructed to the highest degree, it is not a ‘convulsion’. That is why all heavy-handed directorial approaches to it, with Julie hysterical and Jean a wily stud, fail to bring out the jubilation, the humour, in the play.1

With great finesse, then, Christian Schiaretti has defined what I mean by ‘attempt at the tragic’. Together with ‘sex’ and ‘women’, ‘attempt at the tragic’ defines what I mean by ‘Strindbergian’, the first of the two touchstones I will use in my critical comparison of two film versions of Miss Julie, one by Liv Ullmann and the other by Mike Figgis. Now for the second touchstone, the ‘cinematic’.


1 – Christian Schiaretti, interview on the DVD of his production of Mademoiselle Julie (Théâtre National Populaire), Collection COPAT/CNC, 2012. Translated here by Richard Jonathan.

Carl Larsson, August Strindberg, 1899


Like you, perhaps, I instinctively know when a film is cinematic and when it’s not. Conveying meaning visually rather than verbally, for example, is cinematic, as is a handling of space and time that alters the spectator’s ordinary experience of them. Diminishing the spectator’s imagination by ‘illustrating’ a novel or play is not cinematic; heightening it by reconceiving the source material in terms of cinematography and mise-en-scène, editing and acting, is. A simpler, if cynical, criterion is to look at the film’s box office: the bigger the audience, the smaller the ‘cinematicity’.1 Indeed, as is true for all the arts, audiences prefer the beating of a dead horse to the racing of a thoroughbred, the predictable to the sublime. To paraphrase Eisenstein, a cinematic film is vital; a non-cinematic film is lifeless. Does the popularity of lifeless films imply that their audience is made up of zombies? I leave you, dear reader, to decide. For my part, to develop the definition of ‘cinematic’, I’ll content myself with quoting first Martin Scorsese, then Suzanne Langer.


1 – A gross generalization, I admit, but see Martin Scorsese’ article below.

August Strindberg: The Sun Setting on the Sea, 1903 | The City, 1903



From Martin Scorsese, ‘I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.’ New York Times, 4 Nov 2019

For me, cinema is about revelation—aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It is about characters—the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves. It is about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.

Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes. They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.

August Strindberg, Landscape with Flowering Tobacco, 1902

Another way of putting it would be that they are everything that the films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Claire Denis or Spike Lee or Ari Aster or Kathryn Bigelow or Wes Anderson are not. When I watch a movie by any of those filmmakers, I know I’m going to see something absolutely new and be taken to unexpected and maybe even unnameable areas of experience. My sense of what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds is going to be expanded.

In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all. The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare.

August Strindberg, Sunset, 1902



From Suzanne Langer, ‘A Note on the Film’ in her book Feeling and Form (NYC: Scribner’s, 1953) 411-15

Cinema is a poetic art. It is like dream in the mode of its presentation: it creates a virtual present, an order of direct apparition. That is the mode of dream. The most noteworthy formal characteristic of dream is that the dreamer is always at the center of it. Places shift, persons act and speak, or change or fade—facts emerge, situations grow, objects come into view with strange importance, and they may be superseded by others that are related to them essentially by feeling, not by natural proximity. But the dreamer is always ‘there,’ his relation is, so to speak, equidistant from all events. Things may occur around him or unroll before his eyes; he may act or want to act, or suffer or contemplate; but the immediacy of everything in a dream is the same for him.

This aesthetic peculiarity, this relation to things perceived, characterizes the dream mode: it is this that the moving picture takes over, and whereby it creates a virtual present. In its relation to the images, actions and events that constitute the story, the camera is in the place of the dreamer. But the camera is not a dreamer. We are usually agents in a dream. The camera (and its complement, the sound track) is not itself in the picture. It is the mind’s eye and nothing more. The picture is a poetic composition, coherent, organic, governed by a definitely conceived feeling, not dictated by actual emotional pressures.

August Strindberg, Coastal Landscape, 1894

The basic abstraction whereby virtual history is created in the dream mode is immediacy of experience, ‘givenness.’ This is what the art of the film abstracts from actuality, from our actual dreaming. The percipient of a moving picture sees with the camera; his standpoint moves with it, his mind is pervasively present. The camera is his eye (as the microphone is his ear—and there is no reason why a mind’s eye and a mind’s ear must always stay together). He takes the place of the dreamer, but in a perfectly objectified dream—that is, he is not in the story. The work is the appearance of a dream, a unified, continuously passing, significant apparition.

The fact that a motion picture is not a plastic work but a poetic presentation accounts for its power to assimilate the most diverse materials, and transform them into non-pictorial elements. Like dream, it enthralls and commingles all senses; its basic abstraction—direct apparition—is made not only by visual means, though these are paramount, but by words, which punctuate vision, and music that supports the unity of its shifting ‘world.’ It needs many, often convergent, means to create the continuity of emotion which holds it together while its visions roam through space and time.

August Strindberg, Rosendal Park 2, 1903

One of the aesthetic peculiarities of dream, which the moving picture takes over, is the nature of its space. Dream events are spatial but they are not oriented in any total space. The same is true of the moving picture, and distinguishes it—despite its visual character—from plastic art: its space comes and goes. It is always a secondary illusion.

Film is free not only from spatial restriction, but from temporal as well. Motion pictures are our thoughts made visible and audible. They flow in a swift succession of images, precisely as our thoughts do, and their speed, with their flashbacks—like sudden uprushes of memory—and their abrupt transition from one subject to another, approximates very closely the speed of our thinking. They have the rhythm of the thought-stream and the same uncanny ability to move forward or backward in space or time. They project pure thought, pure dream, pure inner life.

The ‘dreamed reality’ on the screen can move forward and backward because it is really an eternal and ubiquitous virtual present. The action of drama goes inexorably forward because it creates a future, a Destiny; the dream mode is an endless Now.

August Strindberg, Shore, 1894


For Mike Figgis’ Miss Julie, Helen Cooper wrote the film script on the basis of her own translation of the Strindberg play. Helen Cooper (interviewed by Eric Grode):

Mike Figgis first read Helen Cooper’s stage adaptation of Miss Julie in 1994 and instantly wanted to direct it. ‘Originally he wanted to do a stage version’, says Cooper, ‘but I said, If you love it so much, why don’t you do a film?’. Once the cast and crew were finally assembled in 1999, the shoot itself was extremely fast—two weeks of rehearsals, followed by only three weeks of filming. Miss Julie was shot in sequence and in an extremely confined space—most of the film take place in the servants’ kitchen. ‘The decision was consciously made not to open it up’, says Cooper, ‘but rather to keep it claustrophobic, in the kitchen.’ Cooper says that as she researched Strindberg’s life and work, she found a modernist sensibility that made his women, with all their faults, more approachable. ‘Strindberg, as a misogynist, took women far more seriously than Ibsen, for example, who invariably turned them into heroines. Strindberg took women off their pedestals.’ This down-to-earth quality helped inform Cooper’s raw, stripped-town translation, which has been pared down even further for the film. She says her goal was to make the screenplay ‘as sparse as possible.’1

Indeed, Cooper’s script has a dialogue word-count of 6,315, which represents, in my rough estimate, a cut of 30% of the dialogue from her translation of the play.


1 – Eric Grode, Playbill, 5 December 1999

August Strindberg, Alpine Landscape 2, 1905

For Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie, she herself, as she explained in a Lincoln Center interview, wrote the screenplay:

When I did Streetcar Named Desire, I recognized so much of Miss Julie in it that I read the Strindberg play again and I thought, I would love to do this as a film. And then some first-time producers asked me if I would direct a movie and write the script myself. So I said, ‘What about Miss Julie, August Strindberg?’. And they said, ‘Yes’. They didn’t know what they said ‘yes’ to, but it became Miss Julie. I’m so happy that I did it, because it’s so full of everything that I want to talk about—as an actress, as a writer, and as a director—how we are existing at the same time in this world, and how little we connect. As Ian Forster said, the most important thing in life is to connect. I found in Miss Julie three people who do not connect. They have every chance, but so much in their class difference, and so much between the two lovers (who are not really lovers), between man and woman—you don’t listen, you don’t see, and you want to be seen and you want to be listened to—and I thought I want to write the script. Strindberg didn’t like women at all, and in the foreword to Miss Julie he wrote a lot of things that he felt about women, and there’s not a woman here [in the Lincoln Center audience] who would like it, and hopefully not too many men either. And so I thought that since this is an adaptation I’m free, and so I allowed Miss Julie to say things that maybe Strindberg let her think but didn’t put into words. And I even let John, the servant, say things that maybe Strindberg just let him think, and that’s where the adaptation comes in.1


1 – Liv Ullmann, Lincoln Center interview

August Strindberg, Silver Birch, 1902

Unsurprisingly, Liv Ullmann’s script, with a dialogue word-count of 8,650, is longer by 27% than Helen Cooper’s, and her film, with a duration of 2h 01m, is 27m longer than Mike Figgis’. What I want to highlight here, however, is the fact that the ‘no dialogue’ proportion of each film is 55% for Figgis and 47% for Ullmann.1 So Figgis’ film, though much shorter than Ullmann’s, has 15% more silence (no dialogue, maybe music or ambient sound). This is a rough-and-ready indication that Figgis calls on the visual more than the verbal to tell the story of Miss Julie, whereas for Ullmann it is the reverse.


1 – The duration of Figgis’ film (excluding the end credits) is 1h 34m. The words-per-minute count is 67. Compared to the average conversation rate for English speakers in the United States—150 wpm*—we see that 52 minutes, or 55%, of Figgis’ film has no dialogue (94m duration – 42m dialogue = 52m of no dialogue). For Ullman, if, for the purpose of calculating the words-per-minute on an ‘apples with apples’ basis, we exclude the various scenes she added to Strindberg (the prologue, Kathleen in her room, Kathleen in the park, Julie in John’s room, Julie at the stream), all of which have no or very little dialogue, the duration of the film drops to about 110 minutes. This gives a words-per-minute count of 79. Compared to the average conversation rate for English speakers in the United States—150 wpm1—we see that 52m, or 47%, of Ullmann’s film has no dialogue (110m duration – 58m dialogue = 52m of no dialogue).


1 – Virtual Speech

August Strindberg, Alpine Landscape I, 1894

Harold Pinter, when he wrote the screenplay for The Caretaker, made significant cuts in his play’s dialogue. He understood that a film, even when adapted from a play, must give precedence to the visual over the verbal.1 Helen Cooper, in writing a script for Mike Figgis from her translation of Miss Julie, also, as we’ve just seen, made the screenplay ‘as sparse as possible.’ Liv Ullmann, in contrast, not only did not cut out any dialogue from her Strindberg translation,2 but (again as we’ve just seen) actually added chunks of dialogue of her own. On this evidence alone, we’d expect her version of Miss Julie to be less cinematic than Mike Figgis’, and that, as the remainder of this essay will confirm, turns out to be very much the case. As for evidence of which film will be more Strindbergian, the brief interview extracts just given are very telling. Helen Cooper and Mike Figgis understand Strindberg. Liv Ullmann not only does not understand him, she has a radical misunderstanding of him.


1 – See the bonus features on the BFI DVD of The Caretaker, directed by Clive Donner.


2 – Regarding that translation, besides an inadequate command of idiomatic English and the usual gaucheries of the naive translator, what’s notable in Ullmann’s language is the systematic recourse to sugar-coating, the bowdlerizing of Strindberg’s text. Examples: Where Helen Cooper has Julie say, ‘Do you really think that I can stay under this roof as your whore?’, Ullmann opts for ‘You think I’m going to stay in this house as your woman?’. Where Helen Cooper has Christine say, ‘Her Ladyship caught the bitch Diana with the gatekeeper’s dog. Now she want to abort to avoid any bastard pups.’, Ullman opts for ‘Miss Julie thinks it’s pregnant again, because she’s been, ah, you know, close to the gamekeeper’s dog. Miss Julie told me she watched them and it made her sick. And now she’d rather risk the dog die from the remedy than have a mixed breed.’ This second example is also a typical instance of how Ullmann overwrites the dialogue, freighting it with redundancies, making is slow and ponderous, flabby and forced.

August Strindberg, Heather, 1905

Mike Figgis, whose edgy films often focus on men and women in (erotic) relation,1 clearly has a Strindbergian sensibility. Consider again Helen Cooper’s statement: ‘Strindberg took women far more seriously than Ibsen, who invariably turned them into heroines. Strindberg took women off their pedestals.’ It is a profound insight. Recall also Christian Schiaretti’s statement cited earlier: ‘In Strindberg, the weapon is the word. That is why when one directs Strindberg, one must not direct as one directs Ibsen, where, to explain the context, one can bring lots of psychology and history into the play. In Strindberg, the question is to kill the other, and to kill him/her with words.’ The error Liv Ullmann makes, and it is a fatal one, is to direct Strindberg as she would direct Ibsen. Indeed, she goes out of her way to find something Ibsenesque in Strindberg, something that partakes of the Meliorist tradition—the idea that by exposing human frailties and social ills, individuals and society can be improved—and when she doesn’t find it, she interpolates her own dialogue to put it there.


1 – See, in particular, The Loss of Sexual Innocence (1999) and Suspension of Disbelief (2012)

August Strindberg, The Wave VIII, 1902

Liv Ullmann:

Strindberg was not very good in his thoughts towards women and that’s why it’s good a woman adapted it. I wanted to remind him about something. He probably knew it but he didn’t want to face it.1

To do Miss Julie on film, for me the important thing was to go further within myself: Why do I want to do Miss Julie? What do I find important in it? It comes back to what I always want to say when I direct a play or a film: Who are people, why are we, and why don’t we listen more to each other? Why are we very often getting to be strangers for each other when the good thing in life, like E.M. Forster said, is to connect? First I translated the play, and then I made my own story within that. I don’t know if Strindberg would have agreed with everything, but I feel that in my admiration for Strindberg but also as a woman, I felt that maybe as a woman I could give him something that was not in his play.2

To realize to just what extent Liv Ullmann’s Meliorist approach to Miss Julie—wanting to do good by inspiring people to ‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height’ (E.M. Forster)—makes her film utterly anti-Strindbergian, consider the following remarks on Strindberg by Germaine Greer.


1 – Liv Ullmann interview in the Guardian, 11 Sep 2014


2 – Liv Ullmann interview in the bonus on the DVD of the German edition of Miss Julie, Fräulein Julie (Alamode Film Distribution – Alive, 2015)

August Strindberg, Storm in the Archipelago (The Flying Dutchman), 1892

Germaine Greer:

Strindberg, like Buñuel after him, glimpsed the archetypal conflict between the sexes in all its terrible grandeur. Buñuel’s film Cet obscur objet du désir shows in the simplest and most astonishing way the utter inability of either sex to comprehend the other. Buñuel is a feminist because he finds the sexual conflict to be radical, tragic and overwhelming—not simply a peripheral question.

Strindberg understood that the expression of the radical enmity between men and women in social or political action would have appalling consequences. Like Buñuel, he embodied his vision of internecine sexual war in archetypes so simple that they could appear preposterous or simply perverse. It is useless, faced with a situation like that of The Dance of Death, to demand explanations of why Edgar’s and Alice’s marriage does not work, for Strindberg is at pains to show that such an arrangement can never work. Above all, the men in Strindberg’s writing cannot be found to blame for their own and their wives’ sufferings. Strindberg understood, although his public hardly ever understands, that the most unpardonable privilege that men enjoy is their magnanimity.

August Strindberg, The Gloom of Jealousy, 1893

Germaine Greer continues:

Voguish reductions of the essential enmity of men and women are trivial. Where Strindberg is mocked and maddened by the very inscrutability of the female body compared to the pathetic exposure of male libido, an essential and intransigent difference between the sexes, voguish reductions are closer to Ibsen’s method than to Strindberg’s, for they imply journalistic explanations which adduce accidental causes, when Strindberg’s agony stems from essential things. Voguish reductions of Strindberg’s radical vision may place it in the context of current feminist debate, but they make a far less significant contribution than did that tormented theoretical misogynist ninety years ago.1

To use Germaine Greer’s terminology, Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie is a ‘voguish reduction’ of Strindberg’s play. To the extent that Ullmann tries to turn Strindberg into Ibsen, to make him a Meliorist, she denatures his play and proves herself to be, philosophically and aesthetically, ‘anti-Strindbergian’.


1 – Germaine Greer, ‘Eternal war: Strindberg’s view of sex’ in her anthology, The Madwoman’s Underclothes: Essays & Occasional Writings (NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986) 207-08. Note that these remarks are taken from a review Greer wrote for the Spectator in 1978 of Per Olov Enquist’s play, The Night of Tribades, which focuses on certain events in Strindberg’s breakup with his wife, Siri von Essen. As, for our purposes, references to the Enquist play would only be a distraction here, I have replaced them with the phrase ‘voguish reductions’, which is how Greer qualifies Enquist’s play. By the way, ‘theoretical misogynist’ is how Strindberg described himself, for on multiple occasions he declared his inability to live without female company. For example: ‘All my misogyny is theoretical, for I couldn’t live without the company of women’. Strindberg, quoted in Michael Meyer, Strindberg: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1987) p. 171.


To my mind, Germaine Greer—for the wickedness of her wit, the acuity of her intelligence, and the ever-renewed freshness of her vision—is the most exciting feminist of the last fifty years. It is not ‘equality’ she seeks for women, but liberation. The difference is fundamental. Reading and listening to her, I sense the composure of a free thinker, just as I do with Alain Robbe-Grillet, for example, or Keith Richards. Never could the words ‘only connect’ come forth on her breath! Ullmann’s feminism is but chaff in the wind compared to the rich grain of Greer’s wheat.

August Strindberg: The White Mare IV, 1901 | The White Mare II, 1892 | Flat Beacon, 1892


What is Liv Ullmann’s filmmaking style? I’ll deduce it from my response to it. I was disappointed that in the course of the film’s two-hour duration, not once did I experience the thrill of surprise: nothing in the cinematography, the editing, or the sound design diverted me from the rails of predictability I found myself on. Everything was clean and pretty, efficient and forgettable. There was a paint-by-numbers quality to the proceedings. The cinematographer recorded, the editor assured continuity and the sound designer functionality—creativity, montage, artistry were lacking.1 I found myself making a parallel between Strindberg and the Nouvelle Vague—the playwright’s critique of the ‘well-made play’ and advocacy of an intimate theater, the filmmakers’ critique of the ‘tradition of quality’ and advocacy of the auteur. In this light, Ullmann is clearly retrograde, a partisan of the ‘well-made play’ and the ‘tradition of quality’. Think Merchant-Ivory: established stars in manor houses, pretty pictures steeped in nostalgia: about as far from Strindberg as one could get. This ‘international form’ is characterized by the polished finish of homogeneity, the stale conventions of academicism, an avoidance of giving offence, flattery of the spectator, and ‘a self-effacing craftsmanship at odds with expressions of authorship’2. It is a style that bathes the film-goer in an illusion of culture, setting him apart from the cretins busily munching their popcorn. It is an exhausted form, a dead language, that satisfies a middlebrow audience’s desire for escapism without guilt. Aesthetically, this is the tradition in which Liv Ullmann inscribes her version of Miss Julie.


1 – You might object that these directorial choices are perfectly justified, since Liv Ullmann’s chief concern was with the actors. In response, I remind you of the terms for interpretation and evaluation I established at the outset: that each director set out to make a film that aspires to the cinematic and the Strindbergian, and it is by these criteria that I make my assessment and analysis.


2 – Belén Vidal, Figuring the Past: Period Film and the Mannerist Aesthetic (Amsterdam University Press, 2012) p. 20

 August Strindberg, The Edge of the Forest, 1905

What is Mike Figgis’s filmmaking style? I’ll proceed as before, and deduce it from my response to it. Right from the title sequence, I was caught up in the excitement of a style in which ‘the conjunction of mobile framing and dynamic staging within the frame stresses the immersion in the action as a sensory experience’.1 Indeed, I found the filming—two hand-held 16mm cameras working in tandem—utterly engaging, and was delighted that the entire movie was to be made in this style. The film radiated a raw immediacy that corresponded exactly to what Strindberg was after in his intimate theatre. It reminded me of John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968), a film also shot hand-held with two 16mm cameras, and of Godard’s A bout de souffle (1960), another 16mm hand-held film. Indeed, there was the same ‘in-the-moment’ sensation, as in a jazz improvisation, the same transcendence of the isolated take, and, most movingly, the same unfiltered access to the human face. Yes, I said to myself, this is the way Strindberg would have wanted it, neither a ponderous solemnity nor a series of star turns, but a freewheeling violence of movement befitting a movie with a fuck at its centre and a suicide at its circumference. A quiver of the lips, a whiff on water—the camera is there to capture it; the shadow of an unspoken thought wavering upon a face—the camera is there to capture it; the turmoil of desire, the eyes saying yes when the lips say no—the camera is there to capture it. Yes, this is the style for acts of transgression by partners in crime, for the battle of the sexes in the soul-kitchen of desire, for the reckoning from night lust to dawn trial.


1 – I have borrowed (and slightly modified) this phrase from Belén Vidal’s description of the opening sequence of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005). Belén Vidal,  Figuring the Past: Period Film and the Mannerist Aesthetic (Amsterdam University Press, 2012) p. 13.

August Strindberg: The Path, 1903 | The Wave VII, 1901


To the extent that the director shapes the actor’s performance—establishing a tonality, measuring out emotion, giving coherence to gestural motifs—he or she is responsible for it. Liv Ullmann, I think it’s fair to assume, shaped the performance of her actors, forging a style consistent with her vision of Miss Julie. From Jessica Chastain she elicited a fine performance, while the performances elicited from Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton, as we shall see, are more problematic. All the performances, however, are anti-Strindbergian. If the weakness of the movie can mainly be imputed to the style of filmmaking, the acting too has a certain responsibility. Before the acting, however, there is the casting: Jessica Chastain is ten years too old for the role. That counts, because it throws off kilter the sexual interplay between Jean and Julie. Indeed, a 25-year old woman beset by lust generates a fuck-and-run excitement that an older woman who comes across as needy simply cannot. Before the fuck, Ullmann has Chastain play Miss Julie according to Andy Warhol’s dictum, ‘I think everybody should like everybody.’1 Ullmann version of Warhol goes like this: ‘Why don’t we listen more to each other? The good thing in life is to connect’.2 After the fuck, Ullmann has Chastain play Miss Julie as a virgin, an Eve who never looked the serpent in the eye and can’t understand why she’s been expelled from Paradise. Ullmann: ‘She sees blood—maybe she’s a virgin, maybe it’s her period—maybe it’s something from him. She’s thinking, “I cross-bred with something. It’s ugly”.’3 As I will argue in parts 4 and 5, the tonality and pitch of Chastain’s performance, shaped by Ullmann, is entirely wrong for Miss Julie. It is anti-Strindbergian.


1 – ‘What is Pop Art’? Andy Warhol interviewed by G.R. Swenson, Art News 62, No. 7 (November 1963)


2 – Liv Ullmann’s Lincoln Center interview


3 – Liv Ullmann on Miss Julie, The Guardian 11 Sep 2014

August Strindberg, Seascape in Moonlight, 1874

The tonality and pitch Ullmann imparts on Colin Farrell’s performance is equally wrong. She has him play Jean as a decent, good-natured guy who, were it not for the constraints of social circumstance, would really have a chance with Julie. Convinced of the intrinsic dignity of all persons and lamenting the lack of equality between them, the director, since she can’t have Colin sing Peter & Gordon,1 instead has him perform with a permanent smirk of self-pity. This is a fatal error, for it effectively emasculates Jean and, as a consequence, makes the core of Strindberg’s drama—the ‘battle of the sexes’—impossible. As for Kristin, Ullmann has Samantha Morton play her with an ultra-sincerity that makes her insufferable—no cut, shot, or sound comes to question her self-righteous rigidity. This, too, is a fatal error, because, stripped of all contradiction, Kristin becomes a deadweight, depriving the Julie-Jean-Kristin triangle of the fluidity indispensable to the dynamics of the drama.


1 – ‘A World Without Love’. Written by Paul McCartney. A N0 1 hit for Peter and Gordon.


Please lock me away
And don’t allow the day here inside
Where I hide with my loneliness
I don’t care what they say
I won’t stay in a world without love

August Strindberg, The Solitary Poisonous Mushroom, 1893

The overall problem with Ullmann’s direction of the actors, then, is that she directs them with her heart, not her brain. For Strindberg, the playwright who, precisely, staged the ‘battle of the brains’, this is deadly. Miss Julie is not a play about a ‘lack of listening’, as Ullmann would have it, but a drama of desire in which the ‘ego is not master in its own house’1. Having Julie hide the panties with which she’d wiped her cunt illustrates Ullmann’s ‘hiding’ of Miss Julie’s dark eroticism. Liv Ullmann: ‘In some ways, acting for Bergman has been difficult, because I am not that dark. I really am not, and maybe I would have liked to do more life-affirming stuff.’2 Miss Julie shares the spirit of The Dance of Death: trying to make it ‘life-affirming’, as Ullmann does, is as ludicrous as trying to make Beckett ‘life-affirming’ by having Godot appear at the end of the play.


1 – Freud, S. (1917) ‘A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 17:135-144.
2 –Liv Ullmann, interview in the bonus to the DVD of Faithless, a film she directed from an Ingmar Bergman script (UK: Tartan DVD, 2001)

August Strindberg, Mysingen, 1892

Saffron Burrows, under Mike Figgis’ direction, delivers a Miss Julie that embodies the tension between a native nobility and a radiant nubility, aristocratic aloofness and cocky familiarity, sexual confidence and vulnerability. Burrows at 26 brings to the role the poise of a model and the instinct of an actress, a voice of darkness that stirs the heartstrings, and a body that through its silken folds hints at the ‘Birth of Venus’. There’s intelligence in those seductive eyes, and venom on that tongue; there’s a vacancy between those long legs, craving he who’s well hung. Yes, dear reader, Saffron Burrows is a Strindbergian Miss Julie, a warrior with weapons for the sex war. The spontaneity of her acting perfectly meshes with the ‘mobile framing and dynamic staging’ the cameras compose. As for Peter Mullan’s Jean, he knows how to sing ‘from under the floorboards’, he ‘knows beauty and a good thing when he sees it’.1 Indeed, at once rough-hewn and refined, confrontational and accommodating, he is a warrior of means on the sexual battlefield. Finally, as Christine, Maria Doyle Kennedy gives a gem of a performance: wily and worldly-wise; wise in a small world, to be sure, but her negotiations with God know no bounds. A Saturday night fuck and a Sunday morning communion, that’s her style. She leaves us in no doubt that when the aristocracy implodes she’ll become a fine petite bourgeoise, grandchildren on her knee—Vera, Chuck and Dave2—delighting in the tragic tale of one Miss Julie.


1 – Howard Devoto and Magazine, ‘A Song from Under the Floorboards’. Magazine, The Correct Use of Soap. Virgin Records, 1980
2 – Lennon-McCartney, ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Capitol Records, 1967

August Strindberg, Sunset, 1892



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