Updated Wednesday morning, with a few knots untangled, below.
August Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman both came in for some bruising comments Tuesday night courtesy of Liv Ullmann, the actress-turned-writer and director with intimate knowledge of both artists’ genius and foibles.
“Being Scandinavian, of course, Strindberg has always been familiar to me,” she told an audience gathered at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where she was interviewed in advance of the Friday opening of her own adaptation of Miss Julie.
The film stars Jessica Chastain in the title role, a nobleman’s daughter who spends a fateful midsummer’s eve in a charged flirtation with her father’s valet, Jean, (Colin Farrell), sometimes in the presence of his fiancée, the cook (Samantha Morton). The play’s 1888 premiere scandalized audiences with its frank depiction of a dance of sex and power between people of different classes.
“But I never wished to play Miss Julie, I’d never done any of Strindberg’s plays,” she admitted. But in the course of directing Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire, she discovered that Tennessee Williams was among many great dramatists who were inspired by Strindberg, including Eugene O’Neill and Bernard Shaw. When the opportunity arose for her to direct a movie, she suggested Miss Julie.
“It’s so full of everything I want to talk about as an actress, as a writer and now as a director, about how we exist in this world and how we connect. In Miss Julie there are three people who do not connect. They have every chance, but so much in their class difference.” Not much has changed. “We don’t listen, we don’t see. You want to be seen, you want to be listened to.”
The playwright himself she doesn’t much care for. “Strindberg, he didn’t like women at all,” Ullmann said. “In the foreword to Miss Julie he wrote a lot of things that he felt about women, and there’s not a woman here who would like it. And not too many men, either.” She added later that while Strindberg had no problem marrying women, “he really looked down at their character. It’s terrible what he says about us.”
Writing her own adaptation, she noted, freed her “to have Miss Julie say things that maybe Strindberg let her think but he didn’t put it in words. And Jean, let him say things that maybe Strindberg just let him think.” Chastain, she insisted, “gives an Oscar-worthy performance.”
Taking issue with interviewer Brian Brooks’s characterization of Julie as being determined to seduce Jean — to be fair, a not uncommon reading — Ullmann argued that she “is so disconnected from the world” that what she really wants is to disappear.
The freewheeling conversation, dotted with several clips from the film, showed the 75-year-old artist as engaging, funny and willing to throw the occasional jab at herself and some of the figureheads in her astonishing career. Asked how her years as an actor informed her work behind the camera, she replied:”By working with many bad directors. They tell me what I’m thinking. … I know you don’t explain emotions as a director to an actor. You don’t do that in real life to people, either. And from the good directors I’ve learned trust, I’ve learned to believe in the actor’s creativity. And I think that goes with life, too. It’s very, very difficult to lead a splendid life. I learned that, too, from good and bad directors.”
Inevitably, the conversation turned to her work with Bergman. She described Scenes From A Marriage as their one collaboration “in which I was not neurotic at all.” She recalled that Bergman gave her a screenplay he had written but wanted her to direct about “what he saw as the greatest sin he had done, which was to be unfaithful to someone. I happen to know that story happened long before me — and I don’t think that was the greatest sin he ever did.” She tried to convince him, she said, to show some forgiveness of the character, and when he refused to change the text, she signaled it visually. “And actually, he didn’t forgive me for that. It took a year, but then he said that was OK.”
Notwithstanding her ferocious independence, Ullmann said she still relates most to a character not of Strindberg’s but of Ibsen: Nora. Best known for walking out on her brutally, condescendingly unforgiving husband Torvald, her gesture was a lightning bolt that changed the theater forever. But it doesn’t occur until the closing moments of the play; until that point, Nora is the dutiful wife, deferential and childlike, no Miss Julie at all.
“I’m Nora in A Doll’s House,” Ullmann said. “I still dance around.” I must admit, she wasn’t totally convincing.
And my favorite moment had come earlier, when Ullmann addressed the gift of having grown up in Norway and Sweden. “We’re not allowed to drive elegant cars,” she noted, saying such affectation brings shame. Then she added pointedly, “And we’re not allowed to carry guns, either.”