MISS JULIE (Frken Julie)
Directed by Alf Sjoberg (1951), 90 minutes
Based on a well-known play by August Strindberg, Alf Sjobergs Miss Julie depicts the struggle for survival between classes and genders in late 19th century Sweden that leads to confusion and tragedy. Because of its frank portrayal of sex between a lower-class servant and an upper-class aristocrat, the play was banned in Europe until 1906 and in Britain until 1939. It is highly regarded, however, as an important work in the literary genre that became known as Naturalism. Compellingly played by Anita Bjork who completely captures her characters erratic willfulness, Miss Julie, the 25-year old daughter of Count Carl (Anders Henrikson) is estranged from the society in which she grew up and fights against the restrictions placed on her because of her status.
Julie is a rebel who treats social conventions of the time with disdain, though she still demands to be treated as a proper woman. Having recently broken up with her fianc (Kurt-Olof Sundstrm) after what would now be called an S&M incident in which she literally makes him jump through hoops like a trained dog, she is open for sexual adventure. The adventure she finds takes the form of the handsome butler Jean (Ulf Palme) whom she seduces following the drunken revelries celebrating Midsummer Eve, a pagan ritual. It is an act which, though only mildly reprehensible today, was viewed as depraved in Strindbergs time and led to the authors characterization of Julie as being sick.
Although Jean is engaged to the cook, Christine (Marta Dorff), neither Jean nor his fianc object because they see the act as an honor due to Julies social position. The seduction, however, leads to her loss of respect from the servants as well as the loss of her own self respect. To escape from their untenable situation, the two lovers talk about leaving on the next train to Switzerland where Jean fantasizes about owning a hotel but the tangled web they have woven leads to unforeseen consequences.
One of the highlights of the film for me was the seamless inter-mixing of dream intervals and flashbacks from childhood. In her dream, Miss Julie is high up on a ledge or mountain. She can no longer hold on but lacks the courage to come down, though she has a longing to fall. Jean, on the other hand, wants to climb a high tree but is unable to reach the top. In flashbacks, Miss Julie recalls how her mother Berta (Lissi Alandh) saw herself as a feminist who was opposed to marriage and only wanted to be the counts mistress. When she gave birth to a daughter, she exacted her revenge by raising the girl as a boy and carrying on various misdeeds until the estate went bankrupt.
Despite its anachronistic and morbid social outlook, Sjobergs Miss Julie is not a grim experience. The director lightens it up considerably with country scenes of folk dancing, horseback riding, and rowing, all in an idyllic setting, beautifully photographed by Goran Strindberg. Though it reflects Strindbergs distorted view of women as hysterics, Miss Julie is a superb film and a treat for the senses, both visually magnificent and wonderfully performed. It has a well-deserved reputation as being one of the greatest Swedish films of all time.
DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY
Directed by Mitchell Leisen (1934), 78 minutes
Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me; the carriage held but just ourselves and immortality Emily Dickinson
If Death took a holiday, the guns would go silent in Iraq, the slaughter on our nations highways would cease, and the news media would be compelled to cover positive events in the humanities, arts, and sciences. Unfortunately, Death has not had a vacation in recorded history, but Mitchell Leisens 1934 fantasy, Death Takes a Holiday, allows us to consider the possibility. Co-written by Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman and based on the play "La Morte in Vacanza" by Alberto Casella, Death Takes a Holiday stars Frederic March as the Grim Reaper who takes on human form in an attempt to discover why men fear him so much. Why he has waited 5,000 years to satisfy this curiosity is not explained.
After a brief tryout as a shadowy figure who scares the daylights out of those that cross his path, Death shows up at, of all places, an upscale party at an Italian villa, posing as the mysterious Prince Sirki. Only one person knows who he really is, the host Duke Lambert (Guy Standing), and he is sworn to secrecy. Sirki proceeds to fascinate the guests. Given to bursts of wit and poetry, he can just as quickly turn sullen and threatening, and some soon find out that it is better not to look too deeply into his eyes. During the three days in which the Prince is at the villa, however, people all over the world miraculously escape death and potential suicides are doomed to frustration.
To see whats behind all the conversation about love, the suave but nave Prince Sirki falls for the irresistible Grazia (Evelyn Venable), the daughter of one of Dukes friends. Grazia knows who Death is but does not fear him, much to the chagrin of her fianc, Corrado (Kent Taylor) who has developed a strong disdain for Prince Charming. More sinister than Brad Pitt in the 1998 remake Meet Joe Black, March turns in a very convincing performance as the creepy yet strangely appealing guest. Although the ending is melodramatic, the emotions are very real and the suggestion that Death may in reality be a friend disguised as a foe is quite touching.