A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Mike Figgis' "Leaving Las Vegas" was about a self-destructive man who pauses briefly for sex and kindness from a Vegas call girl on his way to the grave. Now Figgis has made "Miss Julie,'' a film based on the Strindberg play about a count's daughter and her footman--two people who use sex as their instrument of self-destruction. Both films are intense, erotic and willful; the difference is that we pity and love the characters in the first, while Strindberg and Figgis allow only pity in the second.
It is midsummer's eve in the house of a wealthy Swedish count. In the kitchen, there's much cheerful to-and-froing from the downstairs staff, while upstairs a party is under way. We meet Jean, the footman, played by Peter Mullan as a compact, self-assured man who polishes boots as if they were his enemies. His fiancee, the cook Christine (Maria Doyle Kennedy), is a plump, jolly woman who not only knows her place, but approves of it.
Miss Julie walks down the stairs. Played by Saffron Burrows, she is several inches taller than Jean, and bold, the kind of woman who learned to handle men by first mastering horses. She's come for a little sport with the servants, or because she's bored with the aristocrats upstairs, or because she has noticed how Jean looks at her, or perhaps because her fiance has left her. He left, we learn, because she was too headstrong. On the rebound, she is angry and reckless.
For the next hour and a half, Jean and Miss Julie will engage in a duel of wills. The movie is almost exactly as long as Strindberg's one-act play, which traps them in the same time and space and calls their mutual bluff: Each wants to prove the other doesn't have the nerve to have sex. Intimacy between them, of course, is forbidden by all the codes that apply in this kitchen: the class system, religious beliefs, the separation of servant and master, Jean's engagement to Christine, and not least the fact that they do not like each other.