Did August Strindberg hate women? Liv Ullmann thinks so — the legendary actress, now 75, said as much in interviews at this year's Toronto film festival — and so she has translated, adapted, and directed a film version of "Miss Julie" to reclaim the title character from her own creator. It's a gutsy move. If only it were a stronger movie.
Strindberg's play first appeared in 1888 and shocked audiences with its depiction of a doomed midsummer night's fling between the aristocratic Miss Julie and her father's valet, Jean. It's a two-act class war, gender war, and raging psychodrama, and, for an actress, it offers one of the great roles in theater. Miss Julie is by turns impassioned and imperious, dominant and delusional — a cruel one-percenter and a needy wretch. Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine" is just one of her descendants.
In Ullmann's "Miss Julie," the role is taken by Jessica Chastain, who is ubiquitous in movies these days and possibly spreading herself a little thin. (The actress took the part after the director's first choice, Michelle Williams, became unavailable.) Colin Farrell plays the valet — named John in this English-language version — and his crisp black Irish looks contrast eerily with Chastain's milky skin and strawberry hair. The subtitle to this "Miss Julie" could be "The Red and the Black."
The play and film take place in real time, over the course of one evening in the kitchen of the absent Baron's estate. Outside the peasants are enjoying their midsummer revels, during which Miss Julie has scandalously and repeatedly danced with John. They retreat to the kitchen, and then his bedroom, to hash out their mutual attraction and repulsion. The conscience of the play — the "normal" view, however much Strindberg believes in it or not — is Kathleen (originally Christine), the estate's cook and John's fiancée. She's played by Samantha Morton as a stolid, touching moral force, a woman rooted in the pieties of her God and the earth.
It's a handsomely mounted, intentionally claustrophobic film; too claustrophobic over the long haul, with relentless close-ups that constrict the galvanic emotions on display. Many movie versions of "Miss Julie" — Alf Sjöberg's 1951 adaptation is the acknowledged classic — open up the play with flashbacks and additional scenes that dramatize the characters' monologues. Aside from an opening glimpse of Miss Julie's childhood and a final, pre-Raphaelite shot of her fate, Ullmann sticks as close to the text as possible. You can feel the kitchen walls press in on the heroine's fragile psyche.
And make no mistake: Where most adaptations draw the drama between Julie and Jean as a shifting but evenhanded battlefield, Ullmann and Chastain's Miss Julie is this film's heroine, worthy of our pity in all her craziness. In his preface to the play, by contrast, Strindberg goes on a tear about the modern "half-woman, the man-hater," who "pushes herself to the front, nowadays selling herself for power, honors, decoration and diplomas, as formerly she used to for money." Such women are "synonymous with corruption," he writes. On some level "Miss Julie" can be read as an act of slut shaming.
This is apparently what Ullmann aims to correct, and that's fine in theory. But the film's increased sympathy for and dramatic focus on Miss Julie throws the play's power balance out of whack, and it gives Chastain license to go over the top in the second half. The actress gives a self-conscious, increasingly messy performance, and not just because her character is the same.
The early parts are best, and, in fact, the scene in which Miss Julie orders John to kiss her boot has never been so erotic, tender, or transgressive. At over two hours, though, and with such spare, unyielding staging, the film grinds you down. By the time John breaks out a massive cleaver to dispatch Miss Julie's pet canary, we're touching on melodrama and unintended comedy, both lesser things than either playwright or director intended.
Perhaps that's the key to understanding where this adaptation is coming from. "Miss Julie" seems less a battle of wills between Julie and John than a staring match between Liv Ullmann and August Strindberg. It's the audience that blinks.