There’s a moment in August Strindberg’s 1888 stage play, “Miss Julie,” when the titular aristocrat flirtatiously requests that her valet, John, relinquish the formal “Miss” when addressing her. The line captures the thematic core of the dark drama—namely, the ways in which class divisions dictate communication and constrain human connection—but it also reveals a reluctant vulnerability deep within the female lead that the playwright himself may have been unaware of.
“Only a woman would recognize that,” said Liv Ullman, who has adapted and directed the script for the screen, “how important it is to be seen for who we really are.” Coming from the long time muse of Ingmar Bergman, that aspiration feels particularly apt. After living with the notoriously difficult director for five years on the remote Baltic island of Fårö and starring in many of his greatest works including “Persona,” “Autumn Sonata,” and “Scenes from a Marriage,” the face of Scandinavian cinema is now out from Bergman’s shadow, making a name for herself behind the camera.
Staring the always-excellent Jessica Chastain (whose strawberry blonde complexion and striking bone structure are reminiscent of a young Ullman) and Colin Farrell, the film transplants the story from Sweden to Ireland and seeks to reclaim its eponymous woman as someone far more complex than Strindberg’s rather monstrous characterization might suggest.
Unfolding over 24 hours on Midsummer’s Eve, “Miss Julie” is a volatile and masochistic dance of seduction, it’s bloodied consummation threatening to bring the whole social stratosphere crashing down. Indulging in languorous long takes punctuated by intense close-ups, Ullman’s “Miss Julie” is reminiscent of the character driven art house films she herself used to star in: frustrating and satisfying in equal measure, and, like all good period pieces, rife with innuendo (“I will empty it in one swallow,” Julie says defiantly, of course referring to the glass of wine she insists John pour her).
Indiewire sat down with the director, who at age 75 is as luminous as ever. Incredibly generous and disarmingly sincere, Ullman’s electric blue eyes lit up as she spoke her passion project. “Miss Julie” opens in select theaters this Friday.
This is the first film you’ve directed in 14 years, and first film you’ve directed in English.
They say it’s been so long but it doesn’t feel that way—I’ve directed for the theater, including here in New York. I did “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Cate Blanchett and I played on the stage. I’ve now stopped acting and am only directing. I was going to make a movie out of [Ibsen’s] “A Doll’s House”—I had Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett—we were waiting for money but the project fell through in the end.
You’ve spoken in past interviews about coming up against hurdles because of your age, gender, and the fact that you’re seen as an actress rather than a director. Was it a struggle to get this film made?
It’s tough to have a movie made when you are a woman, when you are an actress, and now because of my age also. But I would have liked to direct more movies because it combines everything that I care about. I like to see the whole picture…how people are behaving and why. I’m really sad I found out about directing so late, when I was in my 50s because otherwise I would have done more movies. I’m lucky that I got to make something like “Miss Julie,” because the movies now they are big…some incredible movies are made, but very much it’s these big blockbuster types [that get the funding].
“Miss Julie” is certainly more about character than it is about plot and these characters are extremely volatile, their desires and motivations often unclear. This was Strindberg’s idea of naturalism in the theater but it’s the antithesis of characterization according classical cinema. How did you work with the actors to translate these characters for the screen?
For me, [these kinds of characters] are easier to direct because it’s what I know—I’m a theater actress and it’s the way I see life. For me film is theater in many ways. Strindberg was interesting to me because I worked a lot with Tennessee Williams and he was very influenced by Strindberg. Strindberg really disliked women and what they stood for and since this is an adaptation I had the freedom to say what I thought [Miss Julie] was feeling, and I wanted to show her in a different way. What she feels when she’s standing in the doorway, for example, Strindberg didn’t give her a line there so I gave her lines. Not that went against Strindberg, but what I felt [the characters] wanted to say. For me, as a director I really build on what the actors bring—I can only work with incredible actors.
Well you did very well here casting Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell.
Yeah! I gave them the script and I told them to trust me and I would trust them because I know when the camera starts rolling, they are the creators and I’m not going to tell them what they’re thinking, or why they’re saying something. My job is really to quiet down. I really had three geniuses here [Samantha Morton plays Kathleen, John’s fiancée, also a member of the serving class]. This happy little girl—I call her a little girl, Jessica—I would never have thought that she’s not like her character in real life. When we started to rehearse she was already in the role and the mood of Miss Julie and when I met her after the film I was even more impressed by what she did. She says we did it together, which is not the truth: she did it. If I was to play Miss Julie I would have made some different choices, her choices are better. I told her after one take towards the end when she’s [writhing] on the ground… I would never have been able to do what she did there. When the bird gets killed, the only thing she really owns, there’s so many ways to react to that—and I should say the bird wasn’t really killed…it was a doll.
I would hope so!
[Laughs]. So that’s how I work with actors. I want them to surprise me. Colin too…everyone that plays John plays him very macho, and is so rude to her. Colin shows us another side. When she comes into the kitchen as a master and starts ordering him around he does what he’s told but you can see in the stiffness of his body that he hates it and that there’s no rebelling, because that’s how he was brought up. The way he does it, the affair, the anger…he’s incredible.
The extent to which their communication is restricted by the social codes of the time—both class and gender—makes watching their seduction both frustrating and incredibly captivating.
Yes, that’s what creates the tension—they don’t understand the answers that are given because the answers are not real. It’s exactly what you said: it all comes from what they were brought up to be and I think that has parallels with today in so many ways. We act according to the class that we’re in and “Miss Julie” really shows that. We are much worse today and I believe that a movie like this can remind us of [the dangers of] that.
The inability to say what we really want to say, being forced to speak in a kind of socially acceptable codes is certainly still relevant today.
Yes exactly, is anyone staying really the truth, what they feel? Even Fergusson for example. People don’t dare say what they really feel. They say what they feel safe to say, but it’s not real communication. The only real communication is that wonderful picture with that policeman holding the boy, and the boy just needing someone to hug him. Now that is truth.
Is this ultimately a love story for you?
Yes, I think it is a love story. I really think [John] loved her from when she was a child. I don’t think it’s a lie. I wonder what Colin thinks, I don’t know what he feels but I feel he loves her but went about it in all the wrong ways—in all the macho ways. I think he could have had a lot to give her. She was also unable to listen.
You’ve talked in past interviews about having to downplay your strength as a woman throughout your career, of having to play the part as someone who pleases—did that shift when you chose to get behind the camera?
It hasn’t changed the way it should have. I get angry because men have a tendency to talk down to you as a woman. I hide it but I get angry sometimes. The first movie I made, the first week I was offering to bring people coffee and doing things I know I didn’t have to do. It’s like I’m playing in “A Doll’s House”—I’m working on it, every day. I do believe this generation of women is much better off, but it’s still tougher to be a woman in this business than it is to be a man.
For years you’ve been known as Ingmar Bergman’s great muse. What’s your feeling toward the word muse specifically—it’s both a huge compliment, but also a limiting one.
It doesn’t bother me. He was a fantastic director he showed me a great deal of trust. Ingmar said something beautiful to me a long time ago, when I said something like this to him, like oh, they’re always asking me about you and he said: “don’t you understand, Liv, you are my Stradivarius.” And you know, I don’t mind that, to be someone’s Stradivarius. I’m grateful that I got to work with someone like that, and I know myself—I know who I am deep down and I take pride in who I am.
The first film you acted in, “Ung flukt,” was directed by a woman (Edith Carlmar). Were you ever never tempted or inspired to direct prior to making your debut with “Sophie” ?
No I never considered it. I wrote a lot in Scandinavia and I was asked to write a script for a movie. When I delivered it and they were happy with it they said you should direct it. And I thought “what?!” I called Ingmar and said, do you think I can direct? And he said yes, you can direct. And after that first week I knew, this is what I should do. I was in my 50s then. But I really felt good and I wish I had done more. And then I directed Ingmar’s scripts [“Private Confessions” (1996) and “Faithless” (2000)]…”Private Confessions” he gave to me and he said: “you believe in God and I don’t so you have to direct it.” It was a stupid reason. But I think my life was meant to be the way it has turned out and I’m very grateful.