(Image: Alejandro Riera, Chicago International Film Festival)


50th Chicago International Film Festival Opening Night Gala special presentation


Returning to the film festival that helped launch her career as a director, two-time Academy Award-nominee Liv Ullmann brought her new film, “Miss Julie,” to serve as the opening night film of the 50th Chicago International Film Festival on Thursday, October 9th, less than a month since its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Ullmann received the Career Achievement Award from the Chicago International Film Festival in 1997 and she screened her directorial debut, “Sofie,” at 1992’s festival event.  “Miss Julie” is based on the 1888 August Strindberg play of the same name and stars two-time Oscar nominee and rising star Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Golden Globe winner Colin Farrell (“In Bruges”), and fellow two-time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton (“Minority Report”).  Both Ullmann and Farrell attended the Opening Night Gala in Chicago.

“Miss Julie” has played on stage for over a century now in many incarnations and in many different countries.  It has been previously adapted to film three times, most notably in 1951 by Swedish filmmaker Alf Sjoberg and most recently in 1999 by “Leaving Las Vegas” director Mike Figgis.  Sjoberg’s native Swedish version won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year and now resides in the high-end Criterion Collection for movie aficionados.  Ullmann moves the play’s setting from Sweden to the Anglo-English aristocracy of 1890 County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, but keeps the central themes.

Chastain plays the titular Miss Julie, a troubled and rebellious daughter of the local baron.  Driven by twisted urges from being sheltered and coddled, she toys with “the help” and scandalously singles out her father’s valet Jean, played by Farrell.  Handsome and more experienced in the world than a typical servant, Jean fancies himself as better than his peers.  He has aspirations to ascend higher than his place as a commoner, but finds comfort in being engaged and betrothed to the homely and devout house cook Christine (Morton).

After a day of reveling the collision of these characters occurs over the course of midsummer’s night and is contained entirely in secret in the house kitchen and connecting servants’ quarters.  Off-screen to these events, Miss Julie made waves at a party by dancing with Jean and breaking the boundaries of class.  At first, that adds to the chip on Jean’s shoulder, but even he realizes the potential trouble of garnering her attention.  For one, he’s engaged and, two, she’s essentially his boss’s daughter. 

Miss Julie shuns that class difference and comes down to the kitchen to pursue Jean and nearly orders his affection and obedience.  She pushes Christine to excuse herself and get Jean alone.  Class and sexual tension spill over and their impossible affair is consummated.  That becomes the point where there is no turning back.  The fallout over the course of the night that follows that unchaste and forbidden deed is what drives the tragic drama of the play and the film.

Make no mistake, “Miss Julie” is a foreboding and uneasy tragedy of the highest regard.  Characters are pushed to their emotional limits with calamitous results.  Dark and wrenching material such as this from Strindberg’s play and Ullmann’s direction became a fertile field for these three actors to test and showcase their skills.  The resulting acting is particularly first-rate.  These are not easy parts to play.  

Jessica Chastain has been one of the most highly regarded and sought-after new actresses for several years now and adds another towering performance to her resume in the title role.  She bravely puts herself through the emotional wringer from start to finish.  Reckless abandon is an understatement to describe her work.  During the press for “Saving Mr. Banks” last year, Colin Farrell called “Miss Julie” the toughest role of his career to date.  He was right and this is his best and most invested work in years, showing unseen range and depth compared to his blockbuster work.  Morton has to play the literal third wheel but shines accordingly when it is Christine’s time to weigh in on the tangled predicament of this affair.

Despite the towering acting, “Miss Julie” is, admittedly, a tough sell for general audiences and a controversial choice as the Opening Night film for what is supposed to be a jubilant anniversary year for the Chicago International Film Festival.  The heavily pensive and considerably depressing subject matter is more challenging and uncomfortable than it is welcoming and empowering.  This film promises to turn off casual fans and only resonate with those that appreciate the performances.  Additionally, the film is intentionally minimalistic to match the atmosphere of the play with its single setting and nearly non-existent musical accompaniment.  Folks that aren’t prepared for heavy drama and starkly still ambiance will be checking their watches and shifting in their seats often over the course of a long 133 minutes.  Simply put, tragedies are hard to recommend and this one lacks the romantic flourish of a silver lining to resonate.  Come for the acting, but don’t bring the emotion home afterwards.

LESSON #1: THE BALANCE BETWEEN SPEAKING KINDLY AND GIVING ORDERS—“Miss Julie” is, once again, a play based on talk and performance over setting and action.  It takes place during a period age where words spoke strongly of your intentions and motivations.  They were truer than true and not speculative.  The performance dialogue between Miss Julie and Jean comes from two people of different classes, which creates a clash between the boundaries and the weight of the words being said.  As the servant, Jean initially has to quell his tone and speak kindly, whether it’s deserved or not while Miss Julie throws her weight around to give orders.  When those roles shift, the tone shifts and from the imbalance is where the drama builds.  There is an undercurrent as to whether or not either character gets pleasure from the way they speak to others.

LESSON #2: DIFFERENTIATING BETWEEN SENSIBLE AND MYSTERIOUS—The dialogue-driven mind games being played by Miss Julie and Jean show the differences between what is sensible and what is mysterious.  Both characters possess both qualities, but they unravel those impressions in different and conflicting ways to each other.  Miss Julie thinks being mysterious can attract what she wants, whereas Jean despises his past indiscretions that force him to be mysterious and hold back his plans and talents.  Both mask their intentions through the pleasantries of being sensible until desire pushes them beyond that point. 

LESSON #3: ESCAPING THE BOUNDARIES OF CLASS—As “Miss Julie” progresses towards its climax, the character motivations adjust away from attraction and go in the opposite direction.  During and after their unwise affair, Miss Julie and Jean push away from the realities of their class differences and seek escape.  Their act itself was an escape away from their proper places and their emotional reactions to the implications afterwards all lean to even more escape.  The overwhelming temptation is to live out Jean’s dreams of coming into money and running away.  He attempts to sell Miss Julie on that exit strategy, but sees her instability, realizes his part in the wrongdoing, and echoes her shame for what has happened.  That broken spirit only pushes the notion of escape even further to darker consequences.