Space is key to the drama at the heart of Antonioni's L’Eclisse and Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie, writes Ian Haydn Smith
Few narrative filmmakers have equalled Michelangelo Antonioni’s approach to architectural space. From his groundbreaking 1960 Cannes winner L’Avventura, the Italian director forged a new relationship between his characters and the world around them, particularly the urban environment, emphasising their dislocation and critiquing the way society was developing.
L’Eclisse (1962), which is re-released in UK cinemas on 28 August, was the final film in Antonioni’s trilogy. (It ranks alongside Ray’s Apu, Ozu’s Noriko, Pixar’s Toy Story and Linklater’s Before series as one of cinema’s great triptychs.) L'Eclisse follows Antonioni’s on-screen muse Monica Vitti, who has ended a relationship with an older man and embarks on an affair with Piero, a stockbroker played by Alain Delon. (For a year, they were European cinema’s most beautiful pairing. Then Luchino Visconti cast Delon opposite Claudia Cardinale in The Leopard (1963), who remained the most absurdly alluring couple on the screen until Tony Leung met Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 masterpiece In the Mood for Love.) Piero's materialism gradually undermines whatever attraction there was between them.
In the final stages of the drama, Antonioni offers us a bleak, yet daring, vision of the world – returning to the places the couple had previously visited, but this time those locations are bereft of humanity, just cold, empty spaces. Martin Scorsese described as “a frightening way to end a film... but at the time it also felt liberating. The final seven minutes of L'Eclisse suggested to us that the possibilities in cinema were absolutely limitless."
Ingmar Bergman’s approach to space in his films was often more intimate, more confined. Take films like Persona (1966), The Hour of the Wolf (1968) or Cries and Whispers (1972) – each detailing, respectively, a professional, personal and familial relationship, and projecting an encroaching sense of claustrophobia. Bergman’s dramas witnessed the slow suffocation of characters as they are stonewalled emotionally and suffer distress through the failure to communicate – or be communicated with – or sense that they are being manipulated.
Liv Ullmann was the lead actress in all three films. She would appear in ten of Bergman’s productions, also attracting acclaim for her performances in Shame (1968), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Face to Face (1976), Autumn Sonata (1978) and the director’s final film Saraband (2003), the sequel of sorts to Scenes. (Bergman had also offered her the role of the mother, Emelie Ekdahl in Fanny and Alexander (1982), which she turned down but later went on to say it was one of the few decisions she has regretted.) He wrote the screenplay for Ullmann’s fourth feature Faithless (2000), a three-hander that details an adulterous affair that ends in tragedy, with also displays a remarkably controlled – and economic – use of physical space. And Ullmann’s experience of working with Bergman can be seen in her new, often unbearably intense adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie.
Another three-hander – this time set at the end of the 19th century – Miss Julie details the goings on in a country house over the course of a midsummer night. The eponymous lady of the house, having recently ended an engagement, is determined to enjoy the midsummer celebrations with the staff of her father’s estate. In particular, she makes initially unwanted advances on the Count’s valet, with dire consequences.
The film’s preamble, featuring a young Miss Julie, recalls the stark contrast between red décor and white costumes that Bergman employed so effectively in Cries and Whispers. The young Julie wanders through the woods – the last time we witness the world outside the main house and courtyards until the closing moments – enjoying her own company yet revealing the sense of loss she feels at the death of her mother. (Both the prologue and the circumstances of her mother’s past are not in the play.) For the remainder of the drama, we navigate our way through the servants’ chambers as Miss Julie and John (Jean in the original play – Ullmann has moved the action from Sweden to Ireland) engage in an emotional joust, while his betrothed, Kathryn (Christine) watches on in shame and embarrassment.
What makes Ullmann’s take on Strindberg’s play so compelling – beyond the performances of Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton – is the way she uses the physical space of the location. The camera closes in then moves away from characters as they feel trapped, then find a way to momentarily break free. Like the films of Bergman and Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, Ullmann’s Miss Julie shows us how cinema can translate the relationship between the characters and the world around them into an emotional space that enriches the drama.
Miss Julie is now available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema.