Thursday, August 4, 2011

#416: Miss Julie

(Alf Sjöberg, 1951)

It's nice to know Bergman doesn't have a monopoly on depressing Swedish films about the overbearing presence of God. Of course, for most viewers it's nice to know Swedish films that weren't directed by Bergman exist at all, so dominant is the filmmaker in the world cinema psyche. This might come as a surprise to people in 1951, when Miss Julie won the top prize at Cannes and Sjöberg was still in the prime of his career, towering above Bergman whom he had collaborated with in the 40s and who had yet to have a breakthrough international hit.

Adapted from the play by August Strindberg, Miss Julie is one of the most rewarding examples of the art of transferring stage to screen. Sjöberg's camera is highly stylized and ambitious - the director uses extreme close-ups, action on multiple planes, and various in-camera tricks to bring Strindberg's immobile play to cinematic life. It still wouldn't be difficult to see that the film was adapted from a play, but Sjöberg's choices illustrate many of the most interesting dilemmas - many of which come down to the essential question to expand or not to expand.

Despite these interesting intellectual elements - not to mention the film's appealingly melodramatic plot - Miss Julie falters in its misogynistic backbone, made far too blatant by the final shot of Julie's mother's picture hovering over the tragedy (her character weirdly reminded me of the vaguely homophobic character Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca). Miss Julie is a better film than its younger cousin, Bergman's infinitely lighter Smiles of a Summer Night, but it's no surprise why the later film has retained its profile, while the intense, impeccably made, but very dated Miss Julie has taken its place next to similarly forgotten Swedish tragedies.

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