In Mike Figgis' edgy, rigorous filming of Strindberg's "Miss Julie," its heroine couldn't strike a less sympathetic introductory note. Saffron Burrows' Julie is tall, regal--and hateful. It's midsummer's eve 1894, and Julie, with nothing better to do, has ventured into the huge ground-floor kitchen of what must surely be a palatial ancestral estate. (As it happens, her father, a count, is away.)
There's a sense of pagan carnal celebration in the air, but she's feeling left out. In the kitchen she encounters her father's footman Jean (Peter Mullan), a virile, bearded, compact man of perhaps 40. Also present is the count's cook, a pretty, dark-haired, sensible young woman named Christine (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who considers herself engaged to Jean and is now dozing off in a rocker out of sheer exhaustion.
Overflowing with condescension, Julie commences baiting Jean, who proves to be more resilient, more self-respecting than she perhaps anticipated. He is not impudent in response but neither is he humble, which to her makes him all the more attractive.
Swiftly, Julie's behavior turns seductive, and this erotic charge gradually turns the encounter into simultaneously a battle of the sexes and class warfare. From the start Jean warns her that she's embarked on a dangerous course, but she has no conception of just how dangerous.
But then Julie has no conception of what the hard life of a servant must be like or that an oppressive existence from which there is no realistic hope of escape could breed such contempt for the unfeeling, exploitative upper classes. Jean is too intelligent, too innately ambitious to be content with his lot, and his close observation of his masters has made him sufficiently well-spoken and polished to pass for a gentleman.
But a lifetime's resentments have had their withering effect, leaving him mean-spirited, vengeful and small-minded. Julie, in turn, has been raised to be a freer spirit than most young women of her class--but her outspoken, uninhibited manner has just caused her fiance to jilt her. Neither of these two fit comfortably within the rigid societal structure of their time, but we begin to wonder, once their mutual attraction catches fire, whether either has the courage or resources to flee, either together or separately.
Strindberg is scarcely the playwright to ask us to like his tormented--and tormenting--men and women, but we do come to understand and feel compassion for Jean and even for Julie, so insulated as to be clueless.
The plight of an aristocrat entangled with her father's manservant doesn't strike an exactly contemporary note, yet surely the contemporary corporate world in which so many men and women spend most of their lives can be as autocratic and treacherous as the society in which Julie and Jean exist.
Strindberg, the eternal modernist, was among the earliest writers to grasp the neurotic, destructive elements within relationships, and the seesawing, power-tripping between Julie and Jean could scarcely be more timeless. Figgis, in turn, elicits the unsparing, no-holds-barred emotions from Burrows and Mullan that he did from Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue in "Leaving Las Vegas."
It's been said the test of a director is whether he can communicate on purely a visual level. The seriously flawed sound recording for "Miss Julie" inadvertently puts Figgis to that test. The sound is so muddy and unbalanced, fluctuating between whispery and bombastic, that at least a third, perhaps even more, of screenwriter Helen Scott's vital, idiomatic rendering of Strindberg's dialogue is virtually unintelligible, with Figgis' own score, aptly spiky and intense, so loud that it threatens to overpower everything else.
Yet, even in those moments when you despair of comprehending any dialogue at all, Figgis remains a compelling storyteller, holding you with the intensity of his vision and his mastery of nuance.
But a Figgis film, not to mention a Strindberg play, deserves to be heard as well as seen.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and a scene of sexuality. Times guidelines: language, adult themes and situations.
Saffron Burrows: Miss Julie
Peter Mullan: Jean
Christine: Maria Kennedy Doyle
An MGM/United Artists release of a Moonstone Entertainment presentation of a Red Mullet production. Director Mike Figgis. Producers Figgis and Harriet Cruikshank. Executive producers Annie Stewart, Willi Baer & Etchie Stroh. Screenplay by Helen Cooper; based on the play by August Strindberg. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. Editor Matthew Wood. Music Figgis. Costumes Sandy Powell. Production designer Michael Howells. Art director Philip Robinson. Set decorator Totty Lowther. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Exclusively at the Beverly Center Cineplex, Beverly Boulevard at La Cienega Boulevard, (310) 777-FILM (No. 172) or (310) 652-7760.