Based on a well-known play by August Strindberg, Alf Sjoberg's Miss Julie depicts the struggle for survival between classes and genders in late 19th century Sweden that leads to confusion and tragedy. Because of its frank portrayal of sex between a lower-class servant and an upper-class aristocrat, the play was banned in Europe until 1906 and in Britain until 1939. It is highly regarded, however, as an important work in the literary genre that became known as Naturalism. Compellingly played by Anita Bjork who completely captures her character's erratic willfulness, Miss Julie, the 25-year old daughter of Count Carl (Anders Henrikson) is estranged from the society in which she grew up and fights against the restrictions placed on her because of her status.
Julie is a rebel who treats social conventions of the time with disdain, though she still demands to be treated as a proper woman. Having recently broken up with her fiancé (Kurt-Olof Sundström) after what would now be called an S&M incident in which she literally makes him jump through hoops like a trained dog, she is open for sexual adventure. The adventure she finds takes the form of the handsome butler Jean (Ulf Palme) whom she seduces following the drunken revelries celebrating Midsummer Eve, a pagan ritual. It is an act which, though only mildly reprehensible today, was viewed as depraved in Strindberg's time and led to the author's characterization of Julie as being "sick".
Although Jean is engaged to the cook, Christine (Marta Dorff), neither Jean nor his fiancé object because they see the act as an honor due to Julie's social position. The seduction, however, leads to her loss of respect from the servants as well as the loss of her own self respect. To escape from their untenable situation, the two lovers talk about leaving on the next train to Switzerland where Jean fantasizes about owning a hotel but the tangled web they have woven leads to unforeseen consequences.
One of the highlights of the film for me was the seamless inter-mixing of dream intervals and flashbacks from childhood. In her dream, Miss Julie is high up on a ledge or mountain. She can no longer hold on but lacks the courage to come down, though she has a longing to fall. Jean, on the other hand, wants to climb a high tree but is unable to reach the top. In flashbacks, Miss Julie recalls how her mother Berta (Lissi Alandh) saw herself as a feminist who was opposed to marriage and only wanted to be the count's mistress. When she gave birth to a daughter, she exacted her revenge by raising the girl as a boy and carrying on various misdeeds until the estate went bankrupt.
Despite its anachronistic and morbid social outlook, Sjoberg's Miss Julie is not a grim experience. The director lightens it up considerably with country scenes of folk dancing, horseback riding, and rowing, all in an idyllic setting, beautifully photographed by Goran Strindberg. Though it reflects Strindberg's distorted view of women as hysterics, Miss Julie is a superb film and a treat for the senses, both visually magnificent and wonderfully performed. It has a well-deserved reputation as being one of the greatest Swedish films of all time.