By Luciana B. Veit
Mike Figgis’ film Miss Julie is based on a play by the same name by August Strindberg, which had its first production in Sweden only sixteen years after its publication. For this case study of the film I have chosen to use a psychological approach. The scene considered in this essay is set on a midsummer night in 1894 in the north of Sweden.
Julie has refused to join her father at a more formal party, and remains at home in the company of her servants. In Julie’s eyes, she is acting happily, dancing wildly with the servants, however they feel that she is “lacking finesse,” and have no respect for her, despite addressing her as “ladyship.” Julie’s behaviour seems abnormal, not because of her wild dancing, but because her patterns of behaviour changes too quickly. She switches between seducing, slapping, kissing, shouting and seducing again. She doesn’t know how to control herself, and needs someone else to “give her orders.” When Julie plays with Jean (this is not a mutual interaction) she is not really sure how it’ll end. Although she is certainly not in love, she feels attracted to him because he is the only servant who stands out to her: he looks and sounds strong and refined, and a strong hand seems to be what Julie is looking for.
One possible reason for her confusion is that she was educated, from her mother, to never serve a man ⎯ to be the one to tell the rules, to be in control at a time when feminist behaviour was not widely accepted by the society. J.L. Styan has noted that the introduction of feminist values also requires new behaviors:
The conception of the new woman lays not merely in recognizing her intellect and independence: She is also required to perform in a new way.
However, Julie lacks the strength of character that her mother displays: to act in such a daring way a woman must have the necessary strength to endure disapproving looks and unsolicited comments. Julie’s behaviour can also be understood using Jean-Paul Sartre’s approach to phenomenology, which “is concerned with how we act in the light of others who are watching us.” Julie is not equipped with what she needs to be in order to be happy, because she doesn’t know who she is or what she wants.
The party of the midnight sun might have been a moment for Julie to go mad as most people do in such occasions, but according to my non-clinical examination, Julie might have gone through a psychotic episode. The recent break-up with her fiancé would have contributed to her mental stress. An article about psychosis illustrates the symptoms:
Psychosis describes a set of symptoms that include delusions… and confused or disturbed thoughts. When people experience these symptoms, they are having a psychotic episode.
Julie had confused and disturbed thoughts and experienced them through violent sexual encounters. She would only realize the consequences of her sexual action with Jean the morning after, shortly before committing suicide. Given that “people who have psychotic depression are twenty times more likely to take their own lives than people who don’t,” Julie’s suicide further strengthens the possibility of psychotic depression. Furthermore, Julie’s father did try to kill himself when her mother fell ill, and “research studies show that particularly severe depression runs in families.” Julie is not only psychotic, but also depressive. The moments when she envied Christine’s deep sleep, when she asked Jean to beat her because she was worthless, when she felt guilty for her bird’s death, and when she took long time to decide whether she should steal her father’s money and run away with Jean, are all symptoms of psychotic depression.
Julie looks physically healthy: a festive white-and-green striped dress covers her voluptuous body, and this is combined with a curled and shiny stylish hair-do, rosy cheeks and moisturised lips, plus the abundant energy for dancing. However, her mind is a mess. Julie is vulnerable, and Jean both acknowledges and uses this in the large and functional kitchen of the house, with the ghost of the count present throughout in the form of a wooden mannequin wearing his hat and his frock jacket. Jean, exercising his power over Julie in the kitchen, forces her to sink into his world. Nevertheless, Mike Figgis chose a set with an overall greenish tone, just like Julie’s dress. In this way Figgis perhaps shows that although it is the servants’ kitchen, it’s still Julie’s house.
Jean is smart for having seen his chance with Julie after the episode when they kiss and slap each other in the garden, but, like Julie, his character has mental issues. Jean hates himself, despite the positive picture he has about his own persona. Although he acts like a gentleman, he is well aware that he is still a footman. His dream is to rise in the society (and perhaps even buy a title of count someday) and this requires a sponsor. He sees an opportunity for this in the vulnerable Julie. Initially he keeps a servant’s distance, and says that “all servants should be treated the same,” then he obeys when asked to kiss her shoe, then Julie starts wondering who is in charge when Jean forces her out of the kitchen for disrespecting Christine’s sleep, and finally he tells a story from his first love, but only after Julie begs for it “as an equal.” Jean tells the story while cleaning the count’s boots and Julie sits in front of him attentively. There is no additional sound during the scene, so that the audience has no distractions.
Jean and Julie seem relaxed and Jean’s way with words is very pleasant. Jean has a clear plan to use Julie to reach his own goals. First he tells Julie about poverty and how he grew up with many siblings sharing a room with pigs, just to re-establish their roles in that kitchen. He then speaks about the beauty of the Turkish pavilion, as an indirect criticism to Julie’s family for not deserving what they have, and for not paying proper attention to it. Asserting that dogs and horses are treated better than servants is another of Jean’s tactics to make Julie feel guilty, and her facial expression becomes less relaxed that point. Next he talks about his utmost childhood dream of “relieving himself in all that splendour” (referring to Julie’s bathroom), to bring about the climax of Julie’s misery. When he tells he hid in the sewer once, afraid of getting caught in Julie’s bathroom, the image Julie pictures turns even more disturbing. Jean relates that after he escaped from the sewer, he saw the beautiful, rich, and clean Julie playing freely in the garden with the flowers. Jean was poor, dirty, and hiding, and could never play with the count’s daughter, the first love of his life, because of their different classes.
Jean finds sadistic enjoyment in Julie’s first tears and he finds it easy to deceive her psychotic mind. At this stage his plan is going well, but Julie is not in his hands yet. So, he continues, saying that a week after the sewer incident, he visited the church in his best clothes just to lay his eyes on the small Julie. Later that day he tried to kill himself. Jean says this to crack Julie psychologically, and he succeeds. Julie because doesn’t understand though the reason for Jean wanting to die. In his mind, it was not for her unreturned love, but because he “would never be able to rise above his class he was born in” in that cold part of the world (meaning coldness in both society and weather). Strindberg states that “fortune is solely determined by comparison,” and Jean clearly compares himself with the count. Jean, dressed in distinguished clothes (when not wearing the livery) and master of refined gestures, is also a master of manipulation, and Julie believes his made-up childhood story. When Julie cried, Jean achieved what he wanted: Julie has lost her authority, and soon, she would be begging for his attention. Jean then puts the cleaned boots aside and stands up, looking proud and arrogant.
Michael Walling suggests that Strindberg “disliked Julie, the martyr, when he preferred Julie, the man-hater.” My interpretation of Julie’s character is that she is a victim of a mental disease and a victim of a sex war. Strindberg also declares: “Jean is polished outside and coarse within.” Jean not only wants to get to the count’s money by using Julie, but he also wants to show her that he, a man, is stronger.
Strindberg asserts that in Miss Julie “there is no absolute evil.” Jean is portrayed as flawed, but he treats his fellow servant Christine with respect and even offers Julie a way out, when she is asked to run the hotel in Italy with him. The reader/audience can sympathise when he tells the story of his childhood or tries to spare Julie from the vulgar farce of the drunken servants. Strindberg states that “the fact that the heroine arouses our pity depends only on our weakness,” but I disagree: the fact that the heroine arouses my pity depends only on my human ability to feel compassion. Walling writes that “compassion and tenderness is suppressed in our society,” and director Mike Figgis, together with Saffron Burrows (playing Julie), translated my interpretation of the story.
The open question that remains, which perhaps only Strindberg himself would be in the position to answer is: why would he portray a world without compassion? This question goes personally to Strindberg because he, having written sixty-two plays, was one of the representatives of Naturalism and Expressionism. Although, according to a preface to Miss Julie, “he was at the centre of the literary controversies,” Strindberg meant his plays to be a mirror of his society. Styan expresses the intentions of Expressionism as:
If the way people behave is the result of their environment, then the way to make people behave better must be to improve that environment.
Strindberg, and later Mike Figgis, reminds us that people make the environment, and not the other way around.
Luciana B. Veit