A scene from 'Miss Julie'
Courtesy Photo
*1/2 stars 100 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, Decemer 17, 1999
Directed by Mike Figgis

Starring Saffron Burrows, Peter Mullan & Maria Doyle Kennedy


Emotional intensity and Figgis' experimental photography will both be diminished on the small screen, but overall will play about as it did in theaters - pretentious.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 5/30/2000

Saffron Burrows:
"Wing Commander" (1999)

Peter Mullan:
"Trainspotting" (1996)

Loose-cannon camerawork, laughable dialogue bury intense performances in Figgis adaptation

By Rob Blackwelder

"Miss Julie" announces its madly pretentious art film intentions with the very first, ear-piercing screech of its cello-raping soundtrack -- scored by director Mike Figgis -- and its gratuitous (and, for a period piece, distractingly inappropriate) hand-held cinematography that jerks around wildly for no reason at all.

"This is an important costume drama!" it insists. "This is art! If you don't like it, you're a philistine!"

OK. I'm a philistine.

What we have here is a very intensely acted but otherwise seriocomic two-character drama of sexual tension and caste discord in a 19th Century Swedish count's household.

Sleek and pouty Figgis squeeze Saffron Burrows ("The Loss of Sexual Innocence," "Wing Commander") plays the count's lustful, conceited daughter, who sets about seducing her father's footman (Peter Mullan, "My Name is Joe") for sport, only to find herself locked in a intense, feral mind game of mores, desires, tenacity and resolve with the man her aristocratic arrogance lead her to presume was her inferior in intellect and cunning.

Shot with just two cameras on a single sound stage set and unfolding in real-time, "Miss Julie" is something of an experiment in minimalist filmmaking (save Burrows' disheveled Gibson Girl hair and elaborate costumes, by 1998 Oscar-winner Sandy Powell). And while Figgis may be commended for his audacity, his end product is so self-cognizant of its technique that it is virtually impossible to let go the medium and become absorbed in the characters.

Plus, it doesn't help that the script -- translated and adapted from August Strindberg's turn-of-the-Century stage play -- has a tendency to become utterly laughable during its most serious moments, due largely to ridiculous dialogue as these two rivals and potential lovers attempt to bait each other in a test of wills.

For most of the film, Burrows and Mullan speak in Byronic/Freudian sound bytes that are passably interesting, while Figgis lingers on their faces, capturing persuasive expressions of distress and distrust. But when it really counts, the lines degrade to this kind of shash:

"It's dangerous to play with fire," says the libidinous cad of a Machiavellian footman. "Not for me," replies the vamping Miss Julie, "I'm insured."

But even when the discourse isn't so silly and Figgis' technique isn't interfering, Miss Julie and the footman are still a pair of almost insufferable egomaniacs, in some ways made worse by the intensity of the performances.

What's more, the characters emotions are all over the map and the sexual sensibilities of the screenplay are so out of date as to be misogynistic. Even in the 1890s, did anyone really believe that once a woman has been taken to bed, she becomes helpless to the omnipotence of her lover's appendage? ("There are no barriers between us now,...and now you despise me!")

If Figgis had somehow dialed down the unintentional laughs and put his camera on a dolly (or at least handed it to a less caffeinated cinematographer), the inherent intensity of "Miss Julie" might have prevailed.

Instead, this picture is exactly the kind of self-important rubbish Mike Meyers used to mock in "Sprockets" skits on "Saturday Night Live."


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