It's a brilliant play, one which observes naturalistic behavior and flawed, complex characters without judgment. It's filled with beautifully written scenes of emotional conviction. Naturally, Figgis is so hell bent on his radical tinkering with form and content that the story becomes a muddle of sensual implications taken straight from fashion magazine perfume ads.
Indeed, he casts former model and current girlfriend Saffron Burrows in the title role as Julie - a challenge for even the most experienced actor. Julie slowly breaks down on the evening after her marriage has fallen to pieces. She will ultimately return to a family structure which will stifle her, and struggles willfully with her passions and appetites embodied in the form of a robust servant (Peter Mullan).
Burrows gave sulky, shallow performances in Figgis' Sexual Innocence and in Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea (the audience I was with cheered when the sharks pursued her with bared teeth.) Her performances in those films were remarkably similar to her work here. She does wear her hair in slightly different curls and perhaps uses some blond highlights, but her emotional range remains the same, haughtily demanding to be waited on or entertained, occasionally allowing her lips to part for wet kisses and chafing tongues. Would this be a Figgis film without smutty groping and breast fondling every ten minutes?
When we first glimpse Miss Julie, she enters the large kitchen space. It resembles the crumbling theater used in Louis Malle's superior Vanya on 42nd Street. Julie stares at a bird in a cage. Figgis can't resist hammering the point home by shooting Julie through the bars. After that image, there's hardly any point to watching the rest of the film, which is her last gasp of inflicting her will on the macho, belligerent and self righteous servant, who continually mutters that she on her pedestal can never understand the lives of those below. She allows herself to be ravished on her own terms ("kiss my foot"), with the inevitable regret, guilt and sadness which surely follow. She is, after all, merely "a fragile woman" full of dew.
If Burrows had a commanding screen presence, some shred of integrity or glimmer of intellect - Cate Blanchett would have been perfect - one would feel Strindberg's sense of all too human tragedy which comes hand in hand with female oppression. Instead, we are presented with Figgis posturing artistically and, shooting her brooding face in the soft sunlight, sexually objectifying her.
Figgis has a penchant for hand-held photography on the mobile super-16mm camera, which makes free use of the space and puts us on the same level of his characters. This does manage to break through the stodgy barrier of making a highbrow, affected period film, which all too often degenerates into costume drama waxwork displays and loses all passion and vigor.
However, he neglects to make it as "human" as this technique might imply, still overly fixated on hyperreal, gauzy lighting and formal devices over content, even making fade out ellipses feel heavy handed. He's in love with long, adoring close ups of Burrows vacant good looks, or of Mullen staring at her obsessively. His performance is so rigid he might as well be wearing a corset.
His most indulgent choice is editing a sex scene from two angles running parallel in a split framed sequence, which reeks of being experimental for its own sake and a prelude for Time Code, which tells its story in four panels simultaneously (one in each corner of the screen.) If Miss Julie is any indication, it's a device which serves to increase the artificiality and, thus, the ridiculousness of his scenario.
Mike Figgis is not without prowess or enormous technical skill, and I admire his adventurous spirit. If only he didn't get high on the fumes of his own highbrow artistic flatulence, he's become a filmmaker of serious consideration. Until that time, he remains merely a curious dilettante.
Run time: 103 mins
In Theaters: Friday 1st September 2000
Box Office Worldwide: $5M
Distributed by: United Artists Films
Production compaines: Maipo Film- og TV Produksjon
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 39%
Fresh: 9 Rotten: 14
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Mike Figgis
Screenwriter: Helen Cooper
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