Miss Julie is an adaptation of August Strindberg’s play – directed and composed by Mike Figgis. Overall, the film remains faithful to the play. However, an indispensable distinction is the addition of a sex scene. After Julie and Jean hear her servants singing a lewd song, they copulate. Because Strindberg’s audience would have had different sensibilities, the act is merely hinted at in the original. For example, Julie says “there are no barriers between us now” (87)
In the film however, the act is explicit, raw, and degrading. In Strindberg’s original, the act stems out of mutual lust, with Julie as the seductress. However, in the film, it is initiated by Jean, out of a desire to ascend social rankings and to see Julie toppled from her pedestal. Hence, the proper term for their act is not “love-making”, not “sex”, but – defilement. The net effect achieved by the sound effects, camera angles, and casting invokes pathos towards Julie.
After the sex scene, the violin refrain is layered with complex chords in the minor key, conveying a poignant sentiment. Conversely, in the sex scene, the only soundtrack is the ambient noise- the feral panting audible. After the bawdy tune, the fiddling fades, replaced by a violin playing one sustained note in the minor key to augment tension. The music stops just as the camera zooms into Jean’s quarters and the split screen commences. With no music to buffer the debasement on the screen, the audience’s feelings of revulsion are amplified.
The camera progresses from medium shots to close-ups of their faces, creating a voyeuristic effect. It trails from Julie’s boots, along her body, to her lips, conveying the intimacy of their union. However, Julie’s eyes are devoid of passion and her porcelain demeanour intermingled with childlike fragility and the sordid nature of the defilement is chilling. The split-screen illustrates the couple from different angles, one closing up on the faces, and the other focused on their bodies. The spasmodic cameras heighten the frenetic atmosphere. As they climax, the two screens close up to their faces and their two perspectives are made one, just as the act of sex unifies perceptions.
Another deviation from the play is the difference between the couple in age, appearance, and height. In the play, Miss Julie is 25 and Jean is 30. (1) However, in the film, Jean appears in his fifties, sporting a balding dome and wrinkled forefront. To evoke indignity that Strindberg’s audience would have experienced from solely the status discrepancy, an older man was cast. Moreover, Julie is waifish, with a patrician demeanour and a childlike vulnerability whereas Jean is stout and aging. Jean’s unsightly appearance is an outward manifestation of his inferior status. The height difference symbolizes their class disparity. Before the act, Jean’s face is nestled in her neck. After, Julie is slumped back, literally looking up to him, revealing the power shift that has just taken place, inviting the audience to commiserate with her plight as she wrings her hands in remorse.
Strindberg, August. Miss Julie and Other Plays, translated by Michael Robinson. Oxford University Press: New York, 1998.