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To fill the void left by the absence of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, for the next two weeks, this column will be dedicated to films that premiered at the festival over the course of seven decades.
There’s not much subtlety to the opening of Alf Sjöberg’s 1951 film “Miss Julie,” which begins with a tight shot of a caged bird, then turns its focus on the eponymous star (played by a vibrant Anita Björk), as she gazes out at a raucous Midsummers’ Eve celebration populated by her father’s servants. The film draws from the classic August Strindberg play of the same name, which Sjöberg himself had mounted before adapting the story into his film, and it went on to win Cannes’ Grand Prix (then the festival’s highest honor). Sjöberg’s adaptation digs deep into the many themes Strindberg sought to explore, serving as a still vital examination of classism, sexism, elitism, and other forms of prejudice.
Mostly, though, it’s an insightful look at the pain — hell, the mania — that a life lived under such restrictions and preconceptions is forced to endure. While set primarily in a sprawling Swedish estate in the late 1880’s, there’s a timelessness to the film’s themes that still plays today. Strindberg’s play has been remade time and again (some may remember the 2013 Liv Ullman version, starring Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell, which failed to bridge the divide between naturalism and high-key emotion), but Sjöberg’s version remains the cinematic standard-bearer. And it all starts with that caged bird.
As Julie — the only child of the wealthy Count Carl, and recently the subject of much gossip after the sudden dissolution of her engagement — stares out at the revelry that will serve as the film’s backdrop, Björk’s fitful glances give her away. It’s never treated as strange that a wealthy heiress would be enthralled by the drunken fun of a group of lower class servants; instead, those early desires to join the fray serve to highlight Julie’s ongoing sense that life itself is out of reach, something that has been denied her because of her station.
Setting the story in a rigidly stratified location — there is Count Carl and Miss Julie, and then everybody else, all literally employed to serve them — adds to the suffocating nature of the story. No one can break free of the expectations they were born into, and it’s making all of them insane. While Sjöberg’s film is understandably centered around Miss Julie, her would-be paramour Jean (Ulf Palme, ricocheting between repulsion and passion in breakneck fashion) provides an essential foil trapped under his own oppression.
Playing out over the course of one night, with occasional flashbacks to illuminate Julie and Jean’s fraught relationship (including key childhood memories), “Miss Julie” is tasked with delivering the full gamut of emotion in limited time. It feels manic and rushed and wild, just like its characters, driven by the sense that no one — not Julie, not Jean, not supporting characters like the wild Viola (Inga Gill) and the jealous Kristin (Märta Dorff), not even Count Carl (Anders Henrikson) — are capable of acting without their emotions getting the best of them. Expectations have made them all crazy, and the brief loosening of the conventions of regular life, care of the boozy holiday, present the perfect moment to act on them.
But Sjöberg’s film isn’t just a beer-laden (or wine-laden, if you’re Jean) excuse for its characters to go nuts for an evening. After ticking through the more sensual of misdeeds — lots of stolen kisses, plenty of literal rolling in the hay — “Miss Julie” begins to mete out its most searing observations, as they extend far beyond the cloistered confines of the estate. The childhood flashbacks, presented after the film’s wild first act, serve to show how both Julie and Jean’s desire to act out, to actually be out of their world, isn’t just rooted in lust.
Each of them share key memories of their childhood with the other — if that sounds romantic, boy, is it not — as a way to explain how they feel about each other, though ultimately only exposing their deepest, darkest motivations. For Jean, it’s his young life, dominated by his lower class and the inability for him to ever ascend to greater heights (at least, he thinks, in Sweden). For Julie, it’s the influence of her feminist mother (who, we later learn, went nuts in her own way), who was hellbent on letting her daughter’s life serve as evidence that the genders are equal. They have been forever caged by the expectations and prejudices that existed before they were even born, and no ill-fated romance or evening spent in celebration will ever be able to alter that.
Strindberg’s original play was set in the estate’s kitchen, and while Sjöberg’s film expands into other spaces, it continually finds its way back into that cramped, messy interior. It’s there that the caged birds — and, in essence, both Julie and Jean — meet their end, snuffed out in an act of selfishness masquerading as a violent attempt at freedom. It doesn’t not end well: In “Miss Julie,” madness drives bad decision-making, and none of it ever changes a thing.
“Miss Julie” is available to stream on the Criterion Channel.