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Miss Julie: Criterion Collection (1951) – DVD Review

Miss Julie: Criterion Collection DVD cover art


Swedish Title: Fröken Julie

Written by: Alf Sjöberg, based on the play by August Strindberg
Directed by: Alf Sjöberg
Starring: Anita Björk, Ulf Palme, Märta Dorff, Anders Henrikson, Lissi Alandh


  • Video essay with film historian Peter Cowie
  • Documentary on the play
  • Booklet with essays by Peter Matthews and Birgitta Steene, both film scholars

Released by: Criterion
Region: 1
Rating: NR
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio

My Advice: Fans of the play should own it

Anita Björk as Julie and Ulf Palme as Jean in Miss Julie (1951)

It’s Midsummer Night and there’s a party going on–the servants are all drinking and whooping it up and having a good time. The Count (Henrikson, not Jerry Nelson) is away visiting his daughter Julie’s former fiancé. It’s established early on that Julie (Björk) is a bit of a domineering bitch so even before we find out why he’s a former fiancé, we don’t have any trouble believing that. Since Julie’s at home she has plenty of time to drink and try to play with the mind of Jean (Palme) the chief manservant. Trouble is, he’s already engaged to Kristin (Dorff) and further trouble, well, he is a manservant. To her dad. And he knows all about Julie and her little games. So this isn’t going to end well.

First of all, let me state something up front. This is apparently one of Those Classic PlaysTM that, at least from what I can tell out of the bonus features, everyone in the world is familiar with but me. Having been educated in Alabama, however, I’m lucky to be able to recognize a stage. So, that’s all I have to offer in my defense. Which is all for the better because I don’t like to review films, when I can help it, in the shadow of their primary source material anyway. So.

What I’m trying to set you up for is the fact that I didn’t really like this very much. From what I take away in the film, we’ve got a story about two people who get drunk and act crazy for nearly an hour and a half, telling their life stories in the process. With all of the melodrama and histrionics that sessions like that entail. And yes, I’ve done that a few times in my younger days, but it’s nothing that I would want to subject an audience to. Yes, Julie’s a tragic character and all that, seeing as how her mother is Bertha Mason, but even knowing that her mother is a loonbag doesn’t make you think that she’s a loonbag any less. Especially, since, you know, she acts like a loonbag. And a total bitch. I might not have mentioned that last part.

Title page of the play Fröken Julie by August Strindberg

Jean only works for me when you get into my interp of the film (which I’ll share with you below after my review, since it will contain spoilers, and the two other people in the world who don’t know this play might want to skip it). But he just gets drunk and takes advantage. And the characters in the flashbacks are just there to give us someone to blame all this on. So it just doesn’t hold water for me. Maybe it’s Sjöberg’s version that’s at fault, but I’m just not buying it.

It’s not the fault of the actors, since Björk and Palme basically carry us through well enough. Björk makes for such a believable insufferable bitch (in case I missed telling you that) and Palme makes you believe that he can warp the woman’s already fairly warped mind. So there’s nothing really to fault there. What I find interesting about the film is how it’s staged like a play–flashbacks happen “on stage” with the past cohabitating the space with our present characters. Which is odd, especially when you find out that those characters never appear in the play–they’re just talked about–and Sjöberg added them. He’s basically taken a play, adapted it for film, and made it feel like it’s still a play. I figured that most of it had been lifted verbatim from the stage as we see it, but that was an interesting tidbit. Also, watch for a young Max Von Sydow–I didn’t even catch it was him until it was pointed out to me.

The bonus features on the disc are rather nice, and between the three of them we get enough to make up for the lack of a commentary track. Peter Cowie is here to give a video essay on the play and on the film and he gives you everything you would want to know–context for the playwright, the director/scribe, the play and the movie–gets the whole thing done in about a half-hour.

There’s a few minutes of an interview with Sjöberg, but Miss Julie is only mentioned in passing, and you get the feeling it was included because they had the footage and it was relevant enough. Better in than out, we always say.

"Miss Julie" Director Alf Sjöberg

We also get “Miss Julie: 100 Years in the Limelight,” a television docu which talks about the various versions of the play (including an all-dance one, apparently), but spends a lot of time on a recent 2005 production of the play in Stockholm. This is indeed interesting because we get to hear from contemporary actors who are hammering through this play. This underscores the importance of the play for actors–indeed, the actor playing Jean talks about how he had wanted to play the part before he gets too old. It gets a little too bogged down in this production, however–and makes me wonder about the quality of the play, since the lead character seems to have three modes: acting relatively normal, shrieking, and just staring wild-eyed. My favorite part of this piece was watching Anita Björk and the actress from a later television version go and see the new production. I hope they didn’t warn the cast ahead of time–I bet that would have scared the shit out of them, honestly.

Okay, so: what’s the bottom line? Well, if you know the play this is probably a no-brainer. It’s Criterion and you get to see the result of an adaptation that adds a great deal to the play and doesn’t seem to make anyone ill that the things were added. If you’re unfamiliar like I am, I would suggest a rental. Criterion completists, though, should definitely buy.

From a recent production of "Miss Julie"

Now. Is everyone else gone? I got spoilers coming…

All right. Here’s what I think and I’m surprised that the only one to even touch upon this was the young lady playing Christine in the modern version. I agree that this is a play about revenge. Supposedly it’s Julie’s mother getting revenge upon Julie’s father for having a penis. Or something like that. Trouble is, it’s hard to get behind that, because Julie taking her own life–how exactly does that further the cause of really stringent feminism, Kate Chopin notwithstanding? The father’s big mistake was getting involved with the mother in the first place–and being a man of status. But I can’t really get behind that as being the thrust of the play: Miss Julie kills herself because she slept with the footman. That seems sort of lame–and isn’t supported by what happens.

Think about it: she doesn’t just kill herself because she slept with Jean, she kills herself because Jean tells her it’s the only way. She’s thinking it, but Jean drives the point home. As a result, Julie kills herself. Now, we could get wrapped up in the idea that a woman’s only way to avoid the shame of sleeping with who she wants to sleep with is to slit her own throat. And that’s probably valid, but again: I don’t see that working based on the movie.

Anita Björk as Julie and Ulf Palme as Jean in Miss Julie (1951)

Throughout the movie, what is Jean doing? Jean is positively fucking around with Julie’s mind. One minute, he’s at her beck and call. The other minute, he’s taking control, calling her a whore and showing her who’s the boss. Back and forth, back and forth, the control goes. He teases her with a notion of running away with him, then says, oh hell no, you’re a slutpuppywhoredog. He kills her bird. He basically screws with her head–which is already pretty screwed up to begin with. And then–and here’s the part that solidified it for me–Jean, out of the blue, hears his master’s voice and goes all weak-kneed.

What? That’s entirely out of context for the character in my opinion. This whole time he’s been so sure of himself–even when I think he’s been pretending not to be–and he goes all wobbly? I don’t think so. I think he says “Ay me, I’m just a servant, oh, I’m so low,” to humiliate Julie even further. “Yup, I’m lower than lower…and you fucked me. What does that make you, sweetie? Why, look at what we’ve got here–a straight razor. Enjoy, babe.”

Think about it. Jean suffered humiliation as being a member of the lower class. As a boy, crawling through an outhouse, almost drowning, being belted harshly–all because he was curious about how the upper class lived. And he learns–as we see in the church scene, where he can’t sleep but Julie can–that Julie’s the top, she’s the Tower of Pisa (as the song goes) and he’s pond scum. So he grows up, goes to work for the Count, and probably has to endure Julie’s mind games for a long time, until–he sees his opportunity. She’s drunk, she’s vulnerable–let’s screw her and make her feel like dirt. And hey, if she kills herself: bonus.

It sounds harsh, but that’s my interp. It’s a revenge story, sure. But Jean is the one who takes the revenge, and Miss Julie the victim.

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