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TORONTO ’99 REVIEW: Figgis Stands by Strong “Miss Julie”

TORONTO '99 REVIEW: Figgis Stands by Strong "Miss Julie"

TORONTO REVIEW: Figgis Stands by Strong "Miss Julie"

by Stephen Garrett

Returning to narrative filmmaking after his impressionistic
fall-from-grace study, “The Loss of Sexual Innocence,” filmmaker Mike
Figgis tackles a period piece with his version of August Strindberg’s
classic Swedish play “Miss Julie,” in which a noblewoman’s forbidden
love for a house servant leads to devastation. The subject is a natural
fit, considering Figgis’ propensity for studying the inner workings of
human interaction as well as Strindberg’s own role, along with Henrik
Ibsen, in the creation at the end of the 19th Century of the modern
psychological drama.

The result, not surprisingly, is very strong, although lacking a certain
independent voice to separate it from the accomplishments of other
equally fine film and stage versions. To what extent Figgis makes this
“Miss Julie” truly his own is hard to discern, considering the play’s
inherent structural strengths and screenwriter Helen Cooper’s
intriguing, looser translation of the Scandinavian classic. Regardless,
the film is a worthy interpretation, a handsome production that
showcases fine performances from Peter Mullan and Saffron Burrows. The
film was acquired prior to the festival by United Artists Films, the
division of MGM who distributed Figgis’
“Leaving Las Vegas.”

Continuing his preference for Super-16 as he did in “Innocence” and
“Vegas,” Figgis shoots his story with a pock-marked graininess that
lends an appropriate coarseness to the seduction that Miss Julie
(Burrows) schemes against the reluctant footman Jean (Mullan), an
intriguing game of double entendres and sado-masochistic
master-and-servant behavior particularly carried out in the presence of
Jean’s fiancee Christine (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Capitalizing on the
occasion of the servants’ annual Midsummer’s Night celebration, in which
the “gentry mixes with the rabble,” Miss Julie forces Jean to dance with
her and attend to her publicly, enough so that rumors already abound
about their mutual attraction. The patient Christine simmers during her
obvious games and honorable Jean tries to maintain his dignity while
feeling his own resistance slipping to Miss Julie’s blatant overtures.

As the household sleeps, Jean and Miss Julie sit in the kitchen
revealing their mutual desires and confessing the torture of their own
lives: Miss Julie, ever feeling herself on a pedestal and wanting to
descend but terrified of the fall; and Jean, down in the dirt but
looking up at the branches of an imagined tree he aches to climb all the
way to the top. When their privacy is invaded by a group of drunk
servants descending on the kitchen, the opportunity to hide and nestle
in a nearby closet eventually becomes occasion for an upright quickie
and the physical
confirmation of their desires.

The spell broken, and knowing they cannot ignore what just happened,
Miss Julie and Jean now face the humiliation and social destruction of
their lives as a result of the transgression. Eager to flee, Jean
convinces Miss Julie to rob the money her father the count keeps
upstairs in his study, while Miss Julie’s own overpowering regret and
despair threatens to destroy any hope of escape.

The ways in which hope, desire, dream and reality intertwine over the
rocky terrain of sometimes impenetrable social strata are what make the
play and Figgis’ production glow with a tragic radiance. Whether it be
Jean’s unattainable goal of transcending servitude and someday owning
his own hotel while having a Swiss villa in Lake Como, or Miss Julie’s
own overwhelming desire to give herself completely to a man without
losing her own will and independence as a woman, the film never veers
from its focus and illuminates Strindberg’s truths in satisfying ways.
Figgis, in this sense, feels more like a filmmaking midwife to someone
else’s genius, dutifully standing by while he helps to deliver another
person’s revelations about human nature.

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