Miss Julie (Fröken Julie)

Director: Alf Sjöberg
Screenplay: Alf Sjöberg (based on the play by August Strindberg)
Stars: Anita Björk (Miss Julie), Ulf Palme (Jean), Märta Dorff (Kristin), Lissi Alandh (Countess Berta), Anders Henrikson (Count Carl), Inga Gill (Viola), Åke Fridell (Robert), Kurt-Olof Sundström (Julie's Fiancé), Max von Sydow (Hand), Margaretha Krook (Governess), Åke Claesson (Doctor)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1951
Country: Sweden
Miss Julie: Criterion Collection DVD
Miss JulieAugust Strindberg's notorious 1888 play Miss Julie takes place entirely inside a single room--a kitchen--and features only three characters: a wealthy and rebellious woman, her father's footman, and the family cook. Thus, the central challenge facing writer/director Alf Sjöberg was how to expand the play for the screen--how to make it genuinely cinematic--without losing the essence of Strindberg's vicious battle-of-the-sexes torment. By encasing the emotional violence in a single room, Strindberg heightened the intensity, but Sjöberg recognized that film offered him greater possibilities. In this regard, it is essential that Sjöberg was a rare filmmaker who was also a renowned theater director, and with one foot in each world he saw clearly how to translate one to the other.

The title character of Miss Julie is played by Anita Björk with a consuming passion that is constantly bursting from the seams of her repressive social status as one of the wealthy elite. The daughter of an unruly and bitterly angry mother who instilled in her a deep-seated hatred of men as a means of punishing her husband (here we get whiffs of Miss Haversham from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations), Miss Julie has recently broken off an engagement with her fiancée and now finds herself drawn to her father's valet, Jean (Ulf Palme, one of Sjöberg's favorite actors on both stage and screen), who is engaged to the homely family cook, Kristin (Märta Dorff). The story, then, is essentially a love triangle, although there is little love on display. At its core, Miss Julie is a seething portrayal of just how divisive the gap can be between men and women, especially those of a determined nature. It is, in essence, a war film, with the battle lines drawn across the genders and no one winning in the end.

The film, which not incidentally takes place at the height of midsummer, a time of celebration and reckless abandon in rural Scandinavian culture, is fundamentally a portrait of the power of sexual attraction and how it can literally bulldoze over anything in is way, whether those be class divisions or simply mutual dislike. Strindberg's underlying theme, which Sjöberg keeps decidedly intact, is the destructive nature of social divides--how they keep apart those who were otherwise meant for each other--but the film's fire comes from the sexual chemistry between the two leads.

There is no denying that the scandal involving a wealthy daughter getting involved with one of the servants is a relic of the 19th century that has little currency today (even in 1952 The New York Times's Bosley Crowther called it “antiquated” and “old-fashioned”), but the manner in which Miss Julie and Jean, who in no way like each other, act out a masochistic dance of simultaneous obsession and derision is strangely enthralling. We learn a great deal about both characters throughout the film, which in the original play was conveyed entirely in dialogue. In adapting it to the screen, Sjöberg keeps that basic structure, but opens it up by portraying the flashbacks and memories and even the dreams they describe. At one point, Miss Julie talks about the nightmares she has of falling from her lofty social perch, while Jean describes his inverse dream in which he imagines himself climbing up an enormous tree, which makes abundantly clear how they are essentially two sides of the same coin.

Sjöberg, who had been directing films since the late 1920s, has a firm command of the medium and knows precisely how to use tracking shots, framing, and rack focus to emphasis the emotional resonance of each scene. Miss Julie is not an aesthetically showy film, but in many ways it is a cinematic tour de force in illustrating how to take essentially static, talky material and infuse it with filmic energy. One of his most daring conceits is putting the past and present in the same frame, allowing Miss Julie and Jean's memories to walk into the room as they are reminiscing, a device this is beautifully evocative of how our past is always with us.

Not everything works quite as well as it should, though; for example, the film's portentous use of symbolism can feel a bit too weighty at times. Symbols of sex and death are everywhere, whether they be firing guns or billowing curtains or spilling wine, not to mention the scene in which Miss Julie spies feverishly on two servants (one played by a young Max von Sydow) literally rolling in the hay. All of this imagery and symbolism certainly adds an additional charge to the film, but there is enough overt sexual energy in the faces of Anita Björk and Ulf Palme to carry the film on its own.

Miss Julie Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioSwedish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • New video essay by film historian Peter Cowie
  • Archival television interview with director Alf Sjöberg
  • 2006 television documentary about the play Miss Julie and dramatist August Strindberg
  • U.S. theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring new essays by film scholars Peter Matthews and Birgitta Steene
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 22, 2008

    The excellent high-definition black-and-white transfer was made from a 35mm duplicate negative and then restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. The image is strong and clean, with only slight hints of softness now and then and a few stray vertical hairlines that couldn't be removed. The delicate balance of contrast and detail in the film is maintained quite beautifully throughout. The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print and digitally restored, resulting in a clean, crisp sound.
    Although there is no audio commentary on this disc, there is a new 33-minute video essay by esteemed film historian and Criterion regular Peter Cowie. The essay does essentially what a good commentary would do except in a tighter time frame and with illustrations. Cowie gives us the biographies and backgrounds of all the principals (including some dirt about Stringberg's past that he worked into the original play), the history of the film's production, its cultural context, and also some intriguing visual analysis. Also included on the disc is a 1966 television interview (7 min.) with director Alf Sjöberg from Swedish television, as well as an excellent hourlong television documentary, Miss Julie--100 Years in the Limelight (2006), which chronicles the history of Stringberg's infamous play. There is no Swedish trailer, but the included U.S. theatrical trailer is a fascinating case study in how American distributors tried to play up the film's exotic and erotic components. The insert booklet features new essays by film scholars Peter Matthews and Birgitta Steene.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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