Thursday, July 17, 2008

Miss Julie

I saw this 1951 Swedish film last Saturday. It is an adaptation of the Strindberg's classic play of the same name, perhaps his most famous and certainly the most often performed. I found it visually captivating and emotionally affecting, mainly due to its director Alf Sjoberg's visually inventive style and superb and stirring performances by the two leads. Notwithstanding its obvious artistry, most casual viewers will still be offended (and justifiably so) by Strindberg's politics, not only of gender but also of class, but that would be a somewhat shallow reaction. I think a more intellectually stimulating way to respond to it will be to see it as an expression of Strindberg's ideology of negation, rather than simple misogynistic and reactionary fantasies and ravings of a bitterly pessimistic man and in that sense it provides a lot of thought-provoking ideas to both feminist and socialist-progressive critics.

First a few words about the contents of the play. It is a tragedy in one act. The whole play is set in the kitchen of a manor house in the countryside. Outside the servants of the house and the general public are celebrating the midsummer eve by singing, dancing and drinking. Inside the kitchen there rages the age-old battle of the sexes btween the two lead characters - Miss Julie, the daughter of the house and Jean the valet. Miss Julie is taught by her evil feminist mother to hate all men which is a problem for her because she lusts for sex and secretly longs for degradation, specially on this midsummer eve, when she has been acting "wild." She has also recently broken off her engagement because she treated her fiancee as a dog (literally so). Jean on the other hand is bitterly self-conscious of his social-status, having grown-up on a life-time of abuse and humiliation. He has big ideas about becoming a man of wealth and stature but like Miss Julie, slavery is so deep-rooted in his soul that just the voice of his master is enough to make him forget all his grand ideas and turn him into a meek dog. The two meet, one looking to degrade herself and the other looking up (in one scene both tell their dreams accordingly in explicit terms) and ultimately everything ends in a tragedy, but only after Strindberg has poured as much of his bitterness as he could in the mutual violent recriminations of the two. (By the way what is it with the sadistic directors and the poor canaries? Fassbinder murdered one in his Berlin Alexanderplatz too. Thankfully both happen offscreen and are staged, or at least I hope so.)

The play is restricted to just one space but film manages to break it open into outside and it becomes really beautiful. I don't know how the midsummer nights in nordic countries feel like but it looks wonderful on the screen. Sjoberg also tranforms the monologues of the play into actual action in the film, some of them very inventively. It reminded me of what Bergman did in Wild Strawberries. It is similar here, Miss Julie imagines the possibilities of some action and we actually see her in the foreground as the action as she imagines it unfolds in the background. The dream sequences are also imaginatively shot.

As I said, the politics of the play and the film may alienate a lot of fair-minded viewers. Strindberg's basic point is undeniable though. Feminism (actually it is a particular variety, mostly in Strindberg's imagination) can leave women alienated from their true, authentic selves - as constituted by their desires, instincts and psycho-sexual proclivities - and so can result in despair and tragedy like what happened to Miss Julie. It is actually true for any other ideological system as well. Strindberg is only wrong in what he thinks is feminism. Real feminism (like in Simone de Beauvoir for example) is not about conforming to some ideal, whether of subservient female, a lesbian or a manhating harpy, but rather finding and creating one's own identity and purusing it with full autonomy and freedom. Thought in this way it is actually a solution for alienation and despair. Also, anybody who is acquainted with the notion of "false consciousness" will see in automatised slavery of Jean an expression of the same. Strindberg, unlike Marxists and other progressive critics, is too pessimistic to believe that anything can ever be done for these people.

In short a thought-provoking, gripping and capivating film. It won quite a few awards in its time, including the grand prize at the Cannes film festival, but is not so well known these days, at least outside Sweded where it is considered a classic. It might be because Bergman has crowded out most of Swedish cultural output in the outside world. Incidentally Sjoberg also directed Torment in 1944 which was Bergman's first screenplay. I saw it recently too and found it quite good - characteristically dark and bleak, though also youthful.

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