LIV ULLMANN (PROLOGUE + SEQUENCE 1)
Liv Ullmann begins her Miss Julie with a 3m45 prologue of her own devising. In it, we see Julie as a child reading lines that, evidently, refer to herself: ‘She had received a most beautiful doll as a present. Oh, what a glorious doll, so fair and delicate. She did not seem created for the sorrows of this world.’ The ‘fair and delicate doll’ is an all-too-obvious projection of Julie herself: Ullmann, via this wink at Ibsen, is drawing a parallel between Julie and Nora. Later the doll appears high up in a tree: Julie will not be confined to a doll’s house because, like John, she aspires to reach the top of a ‘tall tree in a dark wood’. An earlier scene shows Julie as a child lying face-down across a bed. To the strains of Schubert’s Notturno in E-flat major, she moans ‘Mommy, Mommy’. Like the image, the music evokes tragedy, timelessness, and stasis. Later, in a foreshadowing of adult Julie’s suicide, we see child Julie tossing wildflowers into a stream. From the very get-go, then, Ullmann invites us to see Julie as a victim deserving of pity. I, for one, reject this invitation since, like all spectators who refuse to be led by the nose, I am moved more by a child struggling to hold back her tears than by one who is crying. In ignoring this elementary principle of drama, in giving her opening a wistful, weepy tonality, Ullmann makes her prologue not only anti-dramatic, but also anti-’Strindbergian’ and anti-cinematic.
Ullmann’s sequence 1 consists in two shots. In the first, a wide shot, Kathleen, the camera panning with her as she walks at a brisk pace, enters the kitchen from the tunnel and, calling out for the dog, Diana, heads for the stove. In the second, a long shot, Julie climbs from midway to the top of the grand staircase, then turns right: as we saw in the prologue, the baton has been passed from child Julie, who’d walked from the house into the park, to adult Julie, who’d walked from the park into the house. With this splicing of past and present, Ullmann seems to be suggesting that ‘the girl is mother of the woman’.
Indeed, this sequence (like the film in its entirety) manifests an inability to create meaning cinematically, to interpret action in filmic terms. Instead, putting pictures to words, it offers an ‘illustration’ of Strindberg’s play: it is not an organic work that ‘stands on its own two feet’. And how could it be otherwise? An aesthetic that prefers safety to risk, familiarity to adventure, and ideology to openness cannot expect any other outcome. As a counter-example, consider Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005). It too is a ‘period film’ and, what’s more, the umpteenth one from Austin’s novel. And yet it has a vigor and freshness, a charm and élan, that derive from the director’s cinematic intelligence. Harnessing Keira Knightley’s charisma to the old work horses of realism and romance, he knew how to create a work that is at once in its time and of ours. Keira Knightley, barefoot on a swing, idling contemplatively: a happenstance put to cinematic use. Art breathes because of such ‘accidents’, and in Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie, unlike in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, there are no accidents, only intentions: the film is weaker for it.1
1 – Liv Ullmann did rewrite sections of her script to take advantage of ‘accidents of architecture’ that the location shooting at Castle Coole offered.* The accidents I’m referring to, however, are those that arise after the script is written, in the process of filming, and offer opportunities to do something more interesting than what had been preconceived. I see no evidence in Ullmann’s film of any such accidents.
* See her interview on the DVD of Fräulein Julie (Alamode Film Distribution – Alive, 2015)
Mike Figgis’ mise-en-scène of this sequence is radically different from Liv Ullmann’s, and, I will argue, far better. To begin, let’s consider Figgis’ aesthetic and attitude to accident:
Film-making has always been expensive. It’s always someone else’s money and therefore there is always a huge pressure to be conventional.1
Usually the best ideas in cinema come out of situations where a tricky problem arises and there isn’t a piece of equipment around to solve it.2
I’ve arrived at a way of making films where I’m very happy to shoot in 16mm. I actually detest 35mm now, I think it’s so clean, antiseptic and boring. Mainstream cinema is shot like a commercial, it’s so pleased with itself to be so well lit and in focus. When you think about painting, the minute painting was liberated by photography, it just went, ‘Great, let’s go and be impressionists, let’s be abstract’. They couldn’t wait to get away from representation, whereas commercial cinema sticks slavishly to it. People say, ‘Why do you want to shoot on 16mm?’ I’d be happy to shoot in High 8 and blow it up! I think the more abstract you can make the image, by whatever means, the more chance you’re going to have of saying something that will hit the subconscious rather than the front of the head. The one thing that keeps me going is the idea that the sound should be fantastic, and that gives you the freedom to be far more adventurous, visually, with what’s happening on the film, and your editing can loosen up.3
1 – Mike Figgis, Foreword to Justin Bowyer, Conversations with Jack Cardiff: Art, Light and Direction in Cinema (UK: Batsford/Pavilion Books, 2014/2003)
2 – Ibid.
3 – Mike Figgis, in Larry Sider et al., editors, Soundscape: The School of Sound Lectures, 1998-2001 (London: Wallflower Press, 2007/2003) pp. 6-7. For the sake of clarity and concision, I have edited and condensed this citation.
What do these statements tell us about Figgis’ aesthetic and attitude to accident? First, that it is risky to defy convention, but that it is only by defying convention that one can impose an artistic vision. Second, if you do not bend technology and technique to serve your vision, it is you who will become the servant of technology and technique. Third, an artist necessarily aims to ‘hit the subconscious rather than the front of the head’; a filmmaker who is content to ‘hit the front of the head’ foregoes the possibilities of art. On these three points, Figgis clearly falls on the side of defying convention, upholding vision, and ‘hitting the subconscious’.
Figgis used some highly innovative techniques to construct the dense and claustrophobic mise-en-scène. He had a 360-degree one-room stage constructed for the entire film. The action was shot using two hand-held Super 16mm cameras, one in the hands of the cinematographer and one operated by Figgis himself. The action was filmed in sequence, in long, 15-minute takes. A tight space is created around characters, forcing the audience to focus on their expressions, their mannerisms and movements, while the lighting works in expressionistic contrasts of light and shade.1
Figgis, then, knew how to bend technology and technique to serve his artistic vision; he developed a ‘visually adventurous’ cinematographic style complemented by a ‘loosening up of the editing’ and meticulous attention to the soundtrack.
1 – Del Cullen et al., editors, Contemporary British and Irish Film Directors (London: Wallflower Press, 2001) p. 93
Now let’s consider Figgis’ mise-en-scène. First, we note that within the 28 shots in the sequence’s 4min20, the ‘mobile framing and dynamic staging within the frame’ reconfigures the image multiple times. What is remarkable, in this regard, is that although the sequence moves fast, its dynamics, in terms of pacing and intensity, are precisely modulated and widely varied. This is achieved via judicious shot selection, with shot distances ranging from extreme long shot to close-up, camera angles from oblique to full-on, and an alternation of static and moving, contextual and particular, shots. Two additional techniques that make the cinematography so engaging are the device of filming through an internal frame (a lattice partition, for instance), and the use of depth of field to place, for example, Jean in the distant background and Christine in the close foreground. This technique serves more than just the ‘text’: it also serves the subtext. Here, this consists in two lines that will converge into one. The first is Christine’s anger at Jean for arriving late; the second is Jean and Christine’s anticipation of enjoying a Midsummer Night fuck together. This anger and anticipation merge to create an erotic excitement that feeds very effectively into the next sequence where Julie, ‘in heat’, comes to demand some foreplay for herself via a dance with Jean.
This sequence is emblematic of how the two films differ. Where Ullmann’s is static and flat, all text and no subtext, with words doing most of the dramatic work, Figgis’ is the exact opposite: highly cinematic, fully rounded and rich in subtext. As for his use of words, the sequence bears out what he says here:
You write a script, you put it away, you get it out again. You look at it thinking, ‘Oh, this might be filmed.’ And then you get a pencil and take about 25% of the dialogue out. And you think, ‘I’ve cut it to the bone.’ You start rehearsing, the pencil comes out again, out goes another 25%. You think, ‘I’ve cut it to the bone.’ You get on the set and the actors start speaking the lines and the dynamic is now suddenly very cinematic—’we don’t need those words, just that look.’ And then you think, ‘I’ve done it at last, there’s no more fat on this.’ And then you get in the cutting room and find there’s another 25% that can go.1
Figgis, I conclude, trusts his ability to render drama through means proper to cinema. Ullmann, evidently, does not. One might put her verbal prolixity down to the fact that, having made a career as an actress, words are her stock in trade. But Mike Figgis also came to cinema from acting (theatre). Music, however, both composing and performing, has always been his primary art. Intuitively, I sense that he, intimately aware that ‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music’,2 adopts musical principles in his filmmaking. Indeed, his mise-en-scène of this sequence can, in fact, be conceived of as a string quartet—which just happens to be the format for the musical score he composed for the film. Figgis’s musical sensibility accounts in large measure, I suggest, for the artistic self-sufficiency of his film.
1 – Mike Figgis, in Larry Sider et al., editors, Soundscape: The School of Sound Lectures, 1998-2001 (London: Wallflower Press, 2007/2003) p. 11. For the sake of clarity and concision, I have edited and condensed this citation.
2 – Walter Pater, ‘The School of Giorgione’, in Studies in the History of the Renaissance (Oxford World’s Classics, 2010) p. 127
The blandness of the previous sequence now comes to serve as a foil for this one, with Jessica Chastain bringing an air of mystery, a ‘still waters run deep’ gravitas, to Miss Julie’s entrance. Here Ullmann’s direction is excellent. It’s as if the actress has inspired the director to raise her game. Indeed, the two are in perfect accord, adopting an aesthetic that is the cinematic equivalent of pianist Alex Weissenberg’s observation that ‘the most formidable technical and musical task for a pianist to achieve is not the playing of a bravura piece, but rather to play a slow movement from Beethoven, Mozart or Schubert—to play it well, with perfect nervous and sound control’.1 Artistically, it is indeed the case that succeeding in ‘slow and deep’ is much harder than pulling off ‘fast and shallow’, and it is here that Jessica Chastain proves herself a great actress and Liv Ullmann, in contrast to what she’s shown us earlier, in command of the means to make her points cinematically.
1 – Adapted from Alexis Weissenberg in David Dubal, Reflections from the Keyboard: The World of the Concert Pianist (New York: Summit Books, 1984) 333
This is particularly evident in the 50-second scene of her own devising that Ullmann added to close the sequence. In it, Julie and John, having stepped out of the kitchen, walk up the stairs to the entrance hall, John following Julie. Midway up the stairs Julie stops. John, after a hesitation pregnant with meaning, picks up the hem of her skirt and holds it as they continue up. The scene is a perfect representation of John’s new-found role of provider of both household and sexual services.
Julie then walks through the double doors that open out into the entrance hall while John remains standing in the doorway. Having walked down the hallway, Julie walks up the stairs, stops halfway, turns around and looks at John. ‘You’re a man of the future, aren’t you?’, she then asks, daring John to affirm the role of sexual servant she has assigned him. Closing the double doors in her face, as it were, John signals his refusal to service her sexually. In a bold directorial decision, Ullmann then has the camera remain on Julie for a full six seconds as she stands, stranded, on the stairs. This is one of the finest scenes in the film, with Ullmann seizing an opportunity offered by the architecture of Castle Coole to render cinematically the class and sex dynamics that drive Strindberg’s play.
Unlike in Ullmann, where the proscenium stage shadows every shot, here we are more like spectators in a theatre-in-the-round, circulating in an arena: not only are we much closer to the action, we are immersed in it. The effect, reminiscent of 3-D cinema, is enthralling. Now, every viewer of Miss Julie knows that the two key events of the play—the fuck and the suicide—take place off-stage. Every director today must therefore decide, ‘To what extent, if any, should I bring these events back on stage?’. Whatever the answer, the more palpable the actors’ bodies are to the audience throughout the film, the greater the impact on the viewer these two events will have, whether they take place off-stage or on. Aware of this, Mike Figgis, in his mise-en-scène, emphasizes the physicality of the actors. Julie enters running into the kitchen, for example, and slaps Jean in the face (he’d been caressing Christine). Through such staging, Figgis brings forth the metaphysical from the physical, the words from the body. As spectators at this ‘battle of the sexes’, we find ourselves running from one vantage point to another while the film draws from our vicarious physical sensations emotional and intellectual engagement.
Another noteworthy feature of this sequence is the way Julie, in her exchange with Jean, delivers a number of her lines while talking to her bird in its cage, addressing it as ‘sweetheart’. This makes the scene both dramatically richer and more cinematic. Indeed, a principle when dealing with the ineffable, be it in drama, fiction or film, is that ‘detour gives access’. Figgis understands this, and has Julie convey her desire by ‘taking a detour’ via the bird, thus enabling us, the audience, to access it in a way that safeguards its ineffability, that is to say, that does not treat it reductively. It is beautifully done, and Saffron Burrows—unlike Jessica Chastain, an untrained actress—plays it with a candour and freshness that makes it all the more effective.1
1 – Saffron Burrows came to acting from modelling, whereas Jessica Chastain is a graduate of Juilliard.
Strindberg had a horror of dogs. In this sequence Kathleen, in the kitchen, picks up the moaning bitch and carries it to her room, telling it along the way that she didn’t put much of the abortive potion in its food. In the room, she winds up a music box and asks the dog if it likes the music. I like to think this is the feminist director thumbing her nose at the misogynist playwright. Dramatically, I find the scene counter-productive, in that its sentimentality enfeebles the film. It is also a lost opportunity: Ullmann, instead of having Kathleen speak to the ‘textuality’ of the scene—the dog is suffering, it needs comforting—could have had her speak to the scene’s ‘sub-textuality’, as she did in sequence 2 where she had Kathleen say, ‘Miss Julie told me she watched them [the dogs fucking] and it made her sick’. This would have reinforced the subtext and highlighted the dramatic line by making the link with Julie and John now gone dancing (as Kathleen supposes). By reverting instead to the sentimentality of her prologue, Ullmann confirms her rejection of Strindberg’s naturalism.
Shot 1: Christine at the stove. With a certain violence, she lifts the lid off a pot and stirs the pot. Her anger at Julie for taking Jean from her is thus expressed in a physical gesture. Shot 2: The bird in its cage, swiping its beak along its perch: a foreshadowing of the chop-chop. Shot 3: Christine walks over to the cage and, bidding the bird goodnight, throws a sheet over the cage. Shot 4: The dance outside, Jean leading Julie, encircled by cheering revelers. Shot 5: Christine, in a Vermeer-like moment, stands before a mirror in the kitchen, opening her blouse and sponging herself above her breasts. The contrast between the whirling Julie and the still Christine is striking; it reinforces the image of Jean at the apex of a sexual triangle, the two women competing for his favours. Shot 6: Back to the dance, Julie whirling wildly, Jean standing still. Shot 7: A servant cuts in, lifts Julie off her feet and whirls her, leaving her disconcerted. The servant in question is the same man who, later, will utter drunken obscenities as he rampages through the kitchen, clearly hot for Julie who, at that very moment, is getting fucked by Jean. Fade to black.
Exhibiting a static quality typical of the proscenium stage, the long shot that accounts for 65 of this sequence’s 80 seconds nevertheless works because, here, a subtext induces dramatic tension. Indeed, John’s ‘transgression’ with Julie produces an erotic charge that Kathleen’s anger at John for ‘walking off’ with Julie intensifies. Hugging Kathleen playfully from behind, John asks her: ‘Can you imagine what the baron would say if he saw her behavior? Huh? Did you see her?’. To which Kathleen, turning around in his arms to face him, replies (in dialogue added by Ullmann): ‘See her? Is it possible? Are you flattered? Don’t be another dog, will you?’. Upon which he starts barking like a dog while nuzzling her neck. We note the innuendo: John the mongrel dog coupling with the purebred Diana, John the obedient dogsbody. Finally, we register the foreshadowing of ‘Is it possible you fucked her?’ in ‘Is it possible you are flattered?’.
Also noteworthy in this sequence is the prickliness, the high-strung tearfulness, that has crept into Kathleen’s strait-laced starchiness. It’s clear that falling asleep in a chair while John and Julie continue their corrida, as the play has it, is not something she’d be likely to do. Wisely, then, Ullmann has her declare fatigue and go to her room. The way the director has her do it, however—a curious blend of self-righteousness and self-pity1—only reinforces her old-maidish demeanor. This has major consequences, for it makes it impossible for her to pull her weight in the triangle of the love/hate struggle, thus undermining Strindberg’s dramaturgy.
1 – What I’ve called her ‘prickliness’, her ‘high-strung tearfulness’.
The sequence contains several examples of rack focus—moving the focal plane from one object in the frame to another—that express the emotional dynamics at play between the characters. It is cinema, then, that unfolds the drama here, and it is all the more effective because the object of the shifting focus is the face of the actors.
Another fine example of cinematic storytelling is the way Figgis often shows us not the speaker but the listener or observer, as when Julie tells Christine, ‘Yes, but we were officially engaged’, then walks toward Jean. The ‘normal’ thing to do would be to cut to Jean or to follow Julie; instead, Figgis stays on Christine, and has her sneer behind Julie’s back, ‘Nothing came of it, though’.
As for the incident of Jean changing his jacket, script writer Helen Cooper had placed the Count’s hat and coat on a stand in a corner of the kitchen. So, when Julie orders Jean to get out of his livery and put on the Count’s coat, we have at once an interesting Oedipal dynamic (Jean as a cipher for Julie’s father) and a foreshadowing of Jean’s dream of becoming a Count. We see, once again, that where Ullmann relies on words to tell the story, Figgis, preferring embodiment to abstraction, finds ways to replace words with things. That is cinema, and this sequence is a magnificent example of it.
Throughout this long sequence, Jessica Chastain’s Julie gains in complexity and texture but, paradoxically, loses in dramatic intensity. Indeed, the director having decided that a ‘woman in heat’ is not a worthy feminist motif, has opted instead to turn Julie into a woman in search of her soul. Who am I? What is the meaning of my life? How can I connect with another human being? In Strindberg it is desire1 that drives the drama—the war of the sexes, the class war—and for him Ullmann’s questions are strictly subsidiary. By inverting the priorities of the play, by substituting despair for desire, desperation for determination, Ullmann has made Julie nothing more than a misfit: alienated, disillusioned, lost. From this point on, Miss Julie becomes a movie about two people trying to connect, made by a director who repeatedly cites E.M. Forster—’only connect’—and whose meta-filmic discourse is reducible to ‘I think everybody should like everybody’ (minus, of course, the astringency of Warhol’s irony).
1 – ‘Desire’ is to be understood in the Lacanian sense of unconscious desire. ‘Whenever speech attempts to articulate desire, there is always a leftover, a surplus, which exceeds speech. The realization of desire does not consist in being “fulfilled”, but in the reproduction of desire as such. Desire is not a relation to an object, but a relation to a lack. Desire is essentially desire to be the object of another’s desire. Desire is always the desire for something else, since it is impossible to desire what one already has. Desire is not the private affair it appears to be but is always constituted in a dialectical relationship with the perceived desires of other subjects. Desire is the essence of man and the heart of human existence.’ Compiled from Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2001/1996) 35-39
Draining intensity from the drama, Ullmann softens the hard outlines in which Strindberg drew Miss Julie and turns her into a vapid character. Jessica Chastain, flying the flag of sincerity, embodies the director’s vision of the heroine. The epitome of her Pollyanna attitude is to be found in the ‘picnic scene’: Julie grabs a bottle of wine and two glasses and takes John to her favourite spot in the park. ‘Sugar and spice and all things nice’, she listens to him; he takes the hint and piles on the pathos. We have left the realm of Strindbergian truth, derived from an unflinching look at psychological reality, and entered Ullmann’s fantasy world where ‘everybody likes everybody’. Look at the four images below: Chastain, her heart so golden that her skin glows, serves up sincerity on an open-faced sandwich: John the Martyr has only to gobble it up for Ullmann’s loop of goodness to achieve ‘only connect’. Replace the wine with fizzy drink and you’ve got another Coke commercial. A fatal error, for it derails Strindberg’s drama, shunting it onto a dead-end track for dupes.1 Yes, this is a mis-directed movie, made by one who believes a woman’s quest for a fuck is not worthy of her feminism. If only she’d understood that ‘the ego is not master in its own house’,2 she might have seen how richly-textured is that woman’s quest. The irony is that her ‘feminist’ interpretation of Miss Julie, by depriving Julie of agency, is, by virtue of that fact, anti-feminist.
1 – Dupes: those who believe in the possibility of ‘perfect harmony’, as in the Coca-Cola commercial.
2 – 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
In Figgis’ film, Jean and Julie do not engage in discourse as a quest for understanding and respect, aiming at the dissolution of their differences. Instead, as Saffron Burrows embodies Julie’s desire, voice, gesture and attitude concur to make it clear she is in the kitchen to seek a fuck, not a diversion. Jean, as played by Peter Mullan, is at once too worldly-wise to be fooled by a lady in heat and too opportunistic to forego a good thing at hand. Indeed, when nobility rhymes with nubility and peasant with pride, neither aristocrat nor footman will stand on ceremony. And therein lies the genius of this Miss Julie: Mike Figgis is under no illusion that desire can be dissolved in reason and emerge erotic. For him it is the sex war that drives the drama, and ‘feminist’ construals of Julie are a denial of her desire.1 With a dramaturgy based on eroticism and death, he creates a richly cinematic sequence, one in which Julie and Jean take turns plotting the vicissitudes of their desire on the fever chart of their night together.
1 – ‘We are only alive because we desire, yet in our desiring we are obscure to ourselves’. Adapted from Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery (London: Faber & Faber, 1998) p. 107
How does Figgis accomplish this? Immersing us in the action: the sequence is shot largely in close-ups—many of them very close-up—enabling the actors to listen in the aura of their intimacy and to speak under their breath. We feel ourselves present beside them—exhilarating. The director, in a stroke of genius, has Burrows express in a hushed voice the violence of Julie’s desire. When Jean brings her the beer she’d asked for, for example, she holds his gaze and says in an undertone, ‘Won’t you join me?’. Dark in timbre, autumnal in color, heavy with the weight of intimation, her voice, like an overripe fig oozing its essence, distils desire. Jean says nothing in response; he simply fetches another bottle and he and Julie fill their glasses. Cinematic: the suppression of the verbal heightens the evocativeness of the visual. ‘Now kiss my shoe’: grapes of desire, heavy on the vine, this line too oozes the ‘fuck me’ that cannot be voiced. Julie, at once confident and vulnerable, is touching because her struggle with herself is no less evident than her combat with Jean.1 Pairing dialogue and action ‘discordantly’: Jean tells Julie about his dream while she, her face inches from his, tries to remove a speck of dirt from his eye. ‘I think you’re all talk. I think you haven’t got it in you’, she says. The kiss that comes to shut her up is filmed in three shots that make clear its mutuality. The body: Jean, kissing a complicit Julie, squeezes her breast: whack! she slaps his cheek. ‘Are you serious or are you joking?’, he asks her. ‘Serious’, she says, upon which he shoves her and she ends up on her ass. The slap in the face, the shove to the ground: the foreplay to the fuck. As freedom embraces destiny and metaphysics the physical, Figgis refuses both the cowardice of caution and the cop-out of coyness: at once anti-moralistic and anti-didactic, his is a cinema for adults.
1- Out of the struggle with others one makes melodrama; out of the struggle with oneself, tragedy.
Figgis also has Julie and Jean delineate their desire in isolation from each other. Julie confronts herself in a soliloquy, for example, in the scene that follows Jean’s scolding of her for not respecting Christine’s sleep: She rolls with the punches and recovers her cool then lingers at the stained-glass door opening onto the park. The camera follows her in close-up as, fraught with anxiety, she steps outside and stops just before a waterwheel in the background: the wheel of fortune,1 its downward arc ready to wrack Julie in the tragedy to which Strindberg aspired.2 Further on in the scene, we have a close-up of Julie’s wrist as, having risen from the ground onto which Jean had pushed her, she rinses the dirt from her hand. As the water from the tap at the well flows over her flesh (foreshadowing the razor that will slit her wrist), she gazes at her flickering reflection in a muddy pool and says, ‘Everything’s a scum drifting on the water until it sinks’. This soliloquy, like the silent one before, attains a depth of characterization more profound than that in the duo and trio sequences. It also modulates the dramatic pace very effectively, allowing the audience to ‘introject’, as it were, Julie’s introspection.
1 – Foreshadowing both Julie’s ‘I’m on top of a pillar and I can’t get down’ speech and Jean’s ‘I dream that I want to get to the top of that tree’ later in the scene.
2 – Christian Schiaretti: ‘A naturalist tragedy’ as Strindberg subtitled Miss Julie, is an oxymoron. It is an impossibility. Tragedy is a refining of reality, a stripping down to fundamentals. The question of the tragic has to do with an almost metaphysical projection, whereas naturalism is an accumulation of the physical, of verifiable details and everyday banalities. Its aesthetic is opposed to that of the tragic.’ Christian Schiaretti, interview on the DVD of his production of Mademoiselle Julie (Théâtre National Populaire), Collection COPAT/CNC, 2012. Freely translated here by Richard Jonathan.
We also note in this sequence a remarkable economy of means: one more way Figgis makes his ‘fever chart of desire’ effective. The dialogue has been cut drastically; consequently, because the characters address each other less, they are more present to themselves. This self-presence enriches the film greatly. For instance, on multiple occasions Jean does not answer a question from Julie. The camera stays on Jean in his silence, then cuts to Julie who seems to have understood, or at least accepted, that silence. Denied ‘satisfaction’, desire becomes insistent, propelling the drama forward. For Figgis, less is more (whereas for Ullmann, more is less). Economy of means can also be seen in the ‘mobile framing and dynamic staging within the frame’. This technique enables the filmmaker to bring out multiple aspects of a scene in a single shot and, what’s more, to achieve dramatic compression and intensity with neither overload nor loss of detail. The challenge, here, consists largely in knowing what to leave out, a story-telling skill that Robert Louis Stevenson, for one, considered paramount. ‘Mobile framing and dynamic staging within the frame’ is, of course, unique to cinema, and it largely explains why Figgis’ film is so cinematic. It is also a technique that, because of its fluidity and ability to reconfigure the frame instantly, is particularly suited to capturing the vicissitudes of desire.
As for Julie, her being played by an actress too old for the role1 now proves to be fatal, for her condition of sexual limbo implies a radical lack of curiosity: she is an Eve who has refused the apple, and with it, the core of her humanity. Indeed, she has nothing in common with Strindberg’s Julie, who knew what she wanted was a fuck and the ‘knowledge’ that comes with it. I can’t even imagine Ullmann’s Julie ever using the word ‘fuck’: ‘doing naughty’, or some such childish term, is how she’d describe the vague fondling she performs with Jean. In rewriting Strindberg, Ullmann wanted to ‘femininize’ Julie: she succeeded only in dehumanizing her. Knowing neither what she wants not what she doesn’t want, she is neither here nor there. Whatever tension Ullmann had retained in Strindberg’s drama is now drained. The dramaturgy, as a consequence, has nowhere to go, and this, as we shall see, gives the remainder of the film a false ring. The director’s refusal, in the name of feminism, to give sex its due makes Strindberg’s hot-blooded heroine an anemic creature, both morally—she is incapable of taking responsibility for herself—and physically—she is estranged from her own sexuality and cannot inhabit her body.
1 – Jessica Chastain at 36 was a mature woman, visibly older than Strindberg’s youthful heroine. This changes everything. Why? Because the needle has shifted on the dials of our interpretive grid. For example, in our intuitive understanding of character, we do not view a 36-year old virgin and/or cock teaser in the same way as a 25-year old one. Same goes for the interpretation of other aspects of Julie’s character—her helplessness, her inability to find a way out, her courage, etc.
Figgis filmed the sex scene in split screen. I don’t know if he had a loss of nerve, or if time was too tight to do it better, but the filming here is not up to the standard of the rest of the movie. Ideally, he would have had the curtained-off area of the kitchen where the fuck takes place rebuilt as a separate set and, as he did the rest of the film, filmed the fuck ‘in the round’. As it is, the range of angles on the action is too narrow and the views of the two cameras too similar, giving the scene, in contrast to the rest of the film, a very flat appearance. The intercourse itself, from penetration to orgasm, lasts 3m10. Julie and Jean, he leaning into her, stand face-to-face, anxious to escape detection as the revelers roam the kitchen. Two things redeem the poor filming of the fuck: the wit of the kitchen girls’ song and the markers of transgression in the dramaturgy. Here, over the next three text-image rows, are the lyrics to the song:
The Countess of the manor,
So fine and so well bred,
Had balls instead of piss flaps,
The Count found out in bed.
One evening in the east wing,
When they were on the job,
The Count found out the awful truth—
The Countess had a knob!
She whipped him with her chopper,
She whipped him with her dick,
The Count went weak between the knees
‘Cos he’s a useless prick!
A carrot up your shitter,
A carrot up your arse,
If you’re too pissed to get the gist
Just listen to this farce
Countess Julie is the daughter,
The kid they did not want,
She is the noble offspring
Of the Countess and the cunt!
Her Ladyship is dainty
[But will she ever get enough?]
Chasing like a bitch in heat
After every bit of rough
She’s horny for the footman
And the blacksmith at the ball,
She’s horny for Christine as well—
Good God! She’ll fuck us all.
A carrot up your shitter,
A carrot up your arse,
If you’re too pissed to get the gist
Just listen to this farce
And there is Jean the footman,
Superior and bold,
He licks the arse of the ruling class
With his tongue right up their hole!
He’s surely quite above us,
Refined beyond belief,
The slimy git’s a liar and a thief!
So talented and gifted,
He prefers posh wine to beer,
But we all know his secret—
The shirt-lifter is queer!
Oh, a carrot up your shitter,
A carrot up your arse,
If you’re too pissed to get the gist
Just listen to this farce
With great wit and insight, as you can see, the lyrics capture Julie’s family history and the character, as the servant’s perceive it, of Jean and Julie and the Count and his wife.
It is at the end of the song that the split screen starts and Jean penetrates Julie. He is standing and she is half-standing, half-sitting (Saffron Burrows being much taller than Peter Mullan).
The scene is highly erotic, for the markers of transgression are multiple. I’ll mention five:
1. The fuck takes place while the revelers, almost in touching distance to the lovers, are on the rampage in the kitchen.
2. The obscene song is insulting, but arousing to the lovers precisely because it debases them.
3. The lovers are standing, giving the fuck its character of ‘fuck’ in contradistinction to ‘making love’.
4. While Jean is thrusting and Julie adjusting her position (to optimize her pleasure?), Jean is telling her about his project to set up a hotel.
5. Footman fucking Count’s daughter, Count’s daughter being fucked by footman: sex across the class barrier.
Both cameras concentrate on Julie’s face, and Saffron Burrows rises to the challenge of expressing Julie’s anxiety together with her excitement. Even as Julie chases her orgasm there is never the least cliché of sex-scene acting; to the end she walks the tightrope between a dignified awareness of what she’s doing the and the urge to drown herself in loss-of-control.
At the end, she recognizes what’s happened as a momentous event, and covers her face with her hands. Why? For my part, I opt for ambiguity, the quality most interesting artistically, and most true to life.
The fact that the fuck is the turning point in the drama, that everything that preceded it was leading up to it, that everything that followed it was derived from it, makes Figgis’ depiction of it, despite its shortcomings, all the more important. The director, in the face of the indolence of both artists and audiences when it comes to imagining sex in cinema, captures more of Miss Julie in the 3m10 of his sex scene than do other productions that, though ‘sexually explicit’, subordinate sex to post-colonial questions, versions of feminism, or political correctness.
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By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2023 | All rights reserved