Jessica Chastain Says ‘Miss Julie’s’ 1890s Gender Relations Are as Current as the Nude Photo Scandal

Toronto 2014: The actress and her director, Liv Ullman, say men excuse their behavior now the same way they did 150 years ago

Liv Ullman and Jessica Chastain at the Toronto Film Festival
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Liv Ullman’s film version of the August Strindberg play “Miss Julie” may be set in the 1890s, but the beautifully dark and emotionally terrifying film is filled with sentiments that sound strangely and scarily modern, including echoes of the recent theft of celebrities’ nude photos from their cellphones and iCloud accounts, as star Jessica Chastain said at the Toronto International Film Festival.

At one point in the film, Chastain’s title character, an emotionally unstable noblewoman, has sex with John, a servant played by Colin Farrell. The encounter is presented in a way that blurs the lines between consent and assault — and afterwards, Farrell’s character tells Miss Julie, “I may be partly to blame, but do you think a man in my position would even dare to look at you if you hadn’t asked for it?”

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When TheWrap pointed out that those lines sound like the kind of sentiments we hear today, both Chastain and Ullman eagerly agreed.

“Look at the photos that just happened,” said Chastain. “There’s an attitude of ‘OK, yes, I might be responsible for stealing the photos, but they’re famous women and they took it on their phones.’ When I hear that … ”

She shook her head. “I was at a junket, and one of the journalists asked me what advice I would give to the actresses who had their photos leaked. I would have no advice for them, because they were victimized. Even the question’s kind of offensive.

“So yeah, you’re right – that line is still relevant today.”

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Added actress-turned-director Ullman in a separate interview, “You hear that every day, exactly. Things haven’t changed. We continue to say things like that, and that’s why that scene has a power it wouldn’t have had if I did the movie in modern clothes. The scary thing is that that’s what they have said for 150 years.

“And then John goes to [the maid] Kathleen, and she says, ‘What happened?’ He says, ‘I couldn’t leave her, because you know how I am with women.’ That also could have been today. And it’s fascinating to think, oh yes, that’s Strindberg. That happened 150 years ago. We don’t change.”

“Miss Julie,” which premiered on Sunday and is looking for a distribution deal in Toronto, is a frightening piece of work, an immersion in the mind of a woman flailing for a sense of self, swinging wildly between flirtation, recrimination and desperation.

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Ullman opens up the one-room play slightly but never breaks from the emotional claustrophobia of the love/hate battle between Miss Julie and John. The film is unquestionably a tough sell commercially, but a spectacular showcase for raw and riveting performances by Chastain and Farrell.

Chastain’s character is seriously unhinged at times, childlike at others; she’s simultaneously a victim and an aggressor, though Chastain said she and Ullman came up with a feminist interpretation that puts the character more in control of her own destiny.

(Spoiler alert: the concluding paragraphs give away the ending of the story – though considering that the play was published in 1888 and is a staple in the classical theatrical repertoire, it should hardly come as a secret.)

“She goes from being a capable woman at the start of the play to killing herself because a guy tells her so,” said Chastain. “I have a little trouble with that.

“But Liv said something to me that was so incredible, and it’s one of the reasons I think of this performance as a collaboration. She said, ‘What if Julie wants what happens at the end of the story at the beginning?’ Because then it’s not John’s decision, it’s the woman’s decision, and she talks him into helping her. Which is a very feminist take on it.”