Directed by Alf Sjöberg
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 90 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 mono Swedish
MSRP: $ 39.99
Release Date: January 22, 2008
Review Date: January 13, 2008
A coruscating examination of the gender wars and class struggles in nineteenth century Sweden is illuminated in August Strindberg’s legendary 1888 play Miss Julie, and Alf Sjöberg’s 1951 film version expands on the play’s realistic depiction of souls in torment with a gorgeously widened, breathtaking production. The film won the grand prize at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival (in a tie with Miracle in Milan), and its gripping albeit cynical view of these class-defined existences remains a haunting reminder of a time that was not so kind nor gentle.
Miss Julie (Anita Björk) is the headstrong, petulant only daughter of a wealthy landowner, but she’s dissatisfied with her usually subservient fiancé (Kurt-Olof Sundström) and enjoys flirting with the various men in her father’s employ. This includes the footman Jean (Ulf Palme) and the groom Hand (Max Von Sydow). Julie’s confused psyche is owed to the loveless, combative marriage between her munificent father (Anders Henrikson) and her cold, haughty mother (Lissi Alandh). Anxious to take advantage of Julie’s sexual curiosity and his own designs to escape a life of servitude and to instead have a hotel of his own in another country, Jean seduces Julie as his ticket off the manor. Little does he know the Pandora’s box that act will open.
Strindberg’s play has been a stage mainstay for over a century, and with the leading roles as rich and as versatile as Julie and Jean, it’s little wonder that it’s rarely off the stage and has been filmed for a variety of screens large and small many times. The 1951 version is revelatory in that for the first time, director and screenwriter Sjöberg has taken a one room, one act play for three characters and expanded it by dramatizing flashbacks that were mere descriptions on stage and moving the action all around the large manor house and grounds with a dozen major characters. Sjöberg was a renowned stage director, so it’s not a surprise that he gets such vital performances from his entire cast. But by 1951, he was also an experienced film director, too, and he takes superb advantage of the medium to create haunting images involving the major characters. As both Julie and Jean describe dreams to one another, we see the dreams in the background: Julie’s a nightmare of degradation and humiliation and Jean’s a triumphant ascension to wealth and position, both razor-sharp symbols of states they will experience during the course of the movie. Sjöberg uses a startling double exposure in the film when wine spills out of a vat and spreads across the floor just as the laborers on the grounds spill out of the house searching for Julie and Jean. Time and again the images astound: Julie beating a dog, Countess Berta smiling manically as a fire that she has started erupts behind her, a zoomed in close-up of a blood-stained razor on the floor. Sjöberg is every bit as visual a director as he is a master of dialog and staging.
Anita Björk is a luminous Miss Julie. Wildly spontaneous, sexually adventurous, and then deeply guilty and yet striving for survival, Björk catches all of the facets of Julie’s mercurial personality (though Strindberg does often switch the emotions radically for Julie and Jean a bit too arbitrarily for modern consumption). Ulf Palme’s bluster and masculine bravado are perfect for the part of Jean while Märta Dorff’s jealous albeit sympathetic cook Kristin hits all the right notes. Lissi Alandh’s blood-curdling monster mother is one for the ages and surely more than a match for the more sedate and sensitive Count Carl acted by Anders Henrikson. This cast is really stupendous and combined with the expert direction and grandiose sets, costumes, and cinematography, Miss Julie emerges as one of the great Swedish films NOT directed by Ingmar Bergman.
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is presented slightly windowboxed in this Criterion edition. The glorious black and white cinematography comes across beautifully in much of the transfer with a grayscale that is marvelously evocative of the finest Swedish films of the 1950s. Blacks can be very deep while shadow detail is good and whites quite beautiful. Obviously Criterion has subjected the film to a massive clean-up, but unfortunately all of the problems have not been solved. There are some scratches that appear off and on throughout the film (usually running right down the center), and there is also some spotting from time to time and some moments where weak contrast dims the picture to a frustrating degree. Still, it’s a strong presentation that also features very readable white subtitles. The film has been divided into 18 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track does have some hiss and flutter to mar the otherwise solid sound, but more disturbing are some moments where music in the background (the first third of the film takes place at a dance) has a slight wobbly sound. Other than that, it’s exactly the kind of soundtrack we’d expect from a European film of this period.
All of the bonus features on the disc are presented in 4:3.
Unusual for Criterion, there is no audio commentary. Instead, critic Peter Cowie (who has provided commentaries on many Bergman releases) contributes a 33-minute video essay on the movie. He goes into biographical information about playwright Strindberg and director Sjöberg as well as giving us information about the careers of the leading actors and critiquing the film himself with stills, gallery portraits, and film clips used to illustrate his points.
An Alf Sjöberg television interview from 1966 discusses his career directing early sound films and his work on movies during World War II when his reputation as Sweden’s most acclaimed director was established. Nothing is mentioned, however, about Miss Julie in this interview. The interview excerpts run 6½ minutes.
A 2006 television documentary focuses on a 2005-2006 stage production of Miss Julie in Stockholm and interviews actors and directors who have appeared in other productions of the famous play, either on stage or film. An interesting look at how this new stage production goes from casting and table reading through staging and to opening night and critical aftermath, this 56½-minute feature is a nice addition to the feature film on the disc.
The theatrical trailer designed for English-speaking audiences is presented and runs 2½ minutes.
The enclosed 21-page booklet features an arresting array of stills from the movie, an appreciation of the film by film scholar Peter Matthews, and an intriguing think piece on August Strindberg by professor Birgitta Steene.
Miss Julie takes us back to another time and place to see how gender and class roles broke many a human resolve a century ago. And yet, the play can still reflect opinions and expectations of today’s society in regard to expected male and female characteristics, too. It’s a highly recommended Criterion release.