It Takes Two
by Eric Hynes

Miss Julie
Dir. Liv Ullmann, Norway/U.K., Wrekin Hill Entertainment

Maybe it was the advent of Cinemascope in the face of television; maybe it was the increasing use of the tracking shot; maybe it arose as soon as filmmakers felt the need not only to employ or explore the form but also justify it. But somewhere along the way cinema became synonymous with expansiveness. The term “cinematic,” which really just means “of the cinema,” has come to denote a widened scope, a painterly canvas, a traveler’s wanderlust, more of more. Even though film is at least partly rooted in the theater, even though film is inextricably theatrical from performance to the proscenium-like frame, it’s long been necessary for filmmakers and critics/theorists alike to establish an autonomy of film, to flaunt nontheatrical virtues, largely along visual and technological lines. The impulse is to do, and to promote, whatever hasn’t been done, and inversely to consider those impulses inherently cinematic. Less cinematic are things already performed or painted or written about, even if those things remain with us for a reason, even if those things are singularly well served by cinema.

For instance, a key component of the greatness of Mike Nichols, who died late last month, was that he didn’t feel compelled to muffle or counteract tendencies and tastes that he developed in the theater. He didn’t feel it necessary to “open up” Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Closer via unnecessary exteriors or helicopter shots, because he knew that all the drama anyone needs can be found in two people squared off in a tiny room somewhere. There was no need to justify cinematic intervention by selling the camera and its potential, not when the simple fact of the camera and its recording already accomplishes the task. Since no one over the age of two and this side of the 19th century watches a prerecorded performance on screen and thinks they’re in the same room with the performers, impulses toward making things “more cinematic” can be insecure and infantile, like a child who smashes something just to show that he can. These preoccupations threaten to lead us away from the sources of drama and feeling, further from the magic.

Magic is two people in a room becoming something other than what they seemed to be. People put in a box who seem to grow both bigger and smaller as things go, seen up close and then from afar, over here and then over there. Magic is watching one person while wondering what the other person is doing, then—poof, a cut—and they’re there. A reappearance. A teleportation. And it changes everything.

There are very few “cinematic” moves in Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie, but every last one lands like a blow, forces you to re-find your footing. Choices carry more weight when there are less of them, and Ullmann doesn’t make any of these choices lightly. Whether she’s holding on a shot for longer than you’d expect, or following someone down a hallway we’d never previously seen, or moving the camera backwards to accommodate action headed towards us, it feels significant, at times even dangerous. There are cuts in this film that feel more violent than the most visceral of horror or action sequences, cuts that are simply from one face to another—from a face of supplication to a face of scorn, from a face of condescension to a face of piety. And there are shots that mercilessly refuse to end, such as when an act of savagery happens out of frame—and then the camera pans down.

In a departure from August Strindberg’s original stage instructions for Miss Julie, action does briefly leave the kitchen, which has famously served as the war zone/mating area for the title character (Jessica Chastain) and her family’s trusted servant John (Colin Farrell) since 1888 (Ullmann also relocates action from Sweden to Ireland). A wordless preamble sees Julie as a young girl stepping out ofa window from her opulent, empty mansion and exploring the nearby woods and brook, before adult Julie walks back through the floor-abutting window to start the story proper. We’ll return to this brook for the finale, which poetically realizes the tragedy implied by the text, and we’ll also slip into the woods near the middle of the film for a brief but crucially tender moment between Julie and John. Otherwise we stay in the house, and over the course of two hours come to know how things are laid out: that the servants’ quarters are located down a stone-floored hallway from the kitchen, that John’s room is across the hall from his fiancé and house cook Kathleen’s (Samantha Morton) quarters, that these spare, chilly downstairs rooms are linked to the mansion proper via a spiral staircase off the kitchen. We never get a real sense, or anything like an establishing shot, of what’s upstairs; we are instead kept underground, entombed in rooms to which light is more of an implication than a presence, filtered down grey guttered alleys, while the rest of the town exults in the forever light of the midsummer’s night.

Thus Ullmann explores stratification and entrapment not as ideas but as tangible realities. When Miss Julie first turns up in the kitchen, surprising John and Kathleen in a modified domestic clinch, she’s both literally descending to their level and physically trespassing where she doesn’t belong. She’s slumming it, but she’s also out of her element and vulnerable. As the lady of the house she brings power with her, and she uses it immediately: she demands that John dance with her, ostensibly as practice, and when he declines to ascend to the upstairs quarters she orders him to sit with her, drink with her, kiss her boots. But that she does so in the kitchen, on his turf, is crucial. That she cares enough to abandon her physical station for these environs is enough to shift power—to inform John that this is about desire, and thus about women and men, an arena in which he can be in charge, whether Julie knows it or not. Now they’re just two people in room who would like to fuck. The issue becomes how to make it happen, how to make it seem natural despite the unnatural barriers of class, morality, decorum, and employment. Sometimes Ullmann cuts between them, other times one joins the other in the frame. Shots evoke, provoke, and respond to the dance between them.

John’s ploy is to level things out through sentiment and relatable feelings, to close the gap with Julie (a gap he knows she’s eager to close, but too clumsy and sheltered to do effectively) by making himself seem like her but still subject to her beauty and power, by speaking intelligently and poetically, making himself seem “higher” in a class sense than his station would imply. That Julie removes him to the woods for this scene, to a neutral ground where his flowery talk can commune with her earthy impulses, is crucial. When they return to the house she begins to guide him up the spiral staircase, to lift him to her level, but he turns them around. His destination? Back underground, outside the kitchen, to cavernous, empty stables, for a carnivorous kiss under a shaft of dull light descended from on high.

Location, location, location. Back inside we go to the kitchen, before quickly retiring to John’s room (for safety, he says). He selects the room’s only chair, which puts her on the bed, where he will soon join her. Their congress is mutual, but the consequences of it won’t be equally proportioned. Her class, with its expectations of purity and virginity, is now something that buries her. Her gender, considering she has no money or property of her own to counteract her defilement, nor a safe recourse for possible impregnation, is something that condemns her. From this point forward, Ullmann’s camera tends to isolate her in the frame, and to capture her increasingly unhinged monologues via long takes. We stare at her unmercifully, but she’s disappearing before our eyes.

The biggest “moves” that Ullmann makes are in casting a drama entirely comprised of three roles (save for that brief flashback to the younger Julie, played by Nora McMenamy). Morton, as the besieged but resilient third wheel, is flawless. It’s a part that’s rather ungenerously written, eliciting sympathy for the poor dowdy Kathleen before culminating in the servant’s dubious arguments on behalf of maintaining the class structure, as well as her holier-than-though proclamations about salvation (“the last shall be first” she reminds the doomed Julie). But Morton—who’s been out of sight far too much and for far too long—remains sympathetic even in her moments of monstrosity. She’s a woman without any power but for the moral and spiritual kind, which isn’t magically inherited thanks to her lowly, Christly station, but rather taken up like a shield.

Chastain is far from perfect as Julie—her accent drifts in and out, sharpens and dulls—but she’s nevertheless physically ideal, with her elegant frame and translucent skin, and fully committed to being that person in that room. To her great credit, and to the film’s great benefit, she’s actually more convincing as a broken, unguarded hysteric than as a spoiled coquette. Meanwhile it would seem insulting to say that Colin Farrell has never been better than he is here—he’s a far more nuanced craftsman than most have given him credit for—except for the fact that it’s simply true. Depending on the circumstance, he convinces as powerful or pathetic, brawny or diminutive, lion or weasel. He starts with a strong Irish brogue that flattens into classier diction for the seduction before sliding back into brogue after his triumph—absconding with his weak class only to restore it as artillery, as parry. His caterpillar eyebrows, often overworked to elicit empathy, are here mobilized as something of an auto-critique. We’re watching John manipulate Julie out of lust and scorn, and invited to recognize the techniques of his trade, from those tented brows to the rakish flip of his hair and oh-so-serious purse of the lips: the very techniques famously employed by the actor himself. Farrell doesn’t so much become someone else but maximize everything he already has. The same can be said for Chastain, and I’d take both of these denuded performances over the chameleonic, prosthetic, disappearing-into-the-role kind any day. They’re giving over to the characters rather than disguising themselves as them.

It’s no surprise that Liv Ullmann, one of the great actors of the 20th century, has harnessed these performances, nor, unfortunately, is it a surprise that there’s little berth for it in today’s cinema. These are the kinds of performances that are somehow both too subtle and “too actorly”; there’s decidedly too much feeling going on, even if we’re not exactly sure what we’re meant to feel. Yes, it’s theatrical. Yes, moments can feel like they’re too much. But it’s not like audiences today don’t like excess, we just prefer different kinds of excess.

This may make it hard to find Miss Julie in a theater near you, which is of course where its impeccable shots, its inflamed emotions and minute psychological detailing, its Rorschach-worthy effect on an audience, belong. You’re meant to feel trapped in the kitchen with Julie and John, as well as feel relieved and conflicted and disoriented upon leaving. Here’s hoping we don’t let this strain of the cinematic die off. Here’s hoping Ullmann doesn’t have to wait fourteen more years (her previous film, the brutally sublime Faithless, was made in 2000) to make another one. Here’s hoping we don’t forget how powerful basic film craft can be. Ullmann offers two people in a room, and a camera capable of showing us everything.