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“Strindberg is an incredible storyteller with a huge impact”

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Liv Ullmann • Director


- After adapting August Strindberg’s classic Miss Julie for the screen, Liv Ullmann will transfer her own film Private Confessions to the stage

Liv Ullmann  • Director
Liv Ullmann on the set of Miss Julie (© Helen Sloan)

Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann has always wanted to film Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House: “I played Nora (the central character) twice on stage in Norway, once for Norwegian radio and once on Broadway – she almost became part of me. I fully understood what was happening to her,” she explains.

But 14 years after her latest film, the award-winning Faithless, she returns to the director’s chair not with a Norwegian, but a Swedish, classic – an English-language adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie [+see also:
interview: Liv Ullmann
film profile
. Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton star in Strindberg’s battle of the sexes, filmed in Ireland and world-premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Born in Tokyo to Norwegian parents, Ullmann rose to international fame in the 1960s when she starred in ten films for Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. After a five-year relationship (they had a daughter, Linn, now an author), they remained friends until his death in 2007. Their close ties were recently depicted in Indian-UK director Dheeraj Akolkar’s documentary Liv & Ingmar [+see also:
film profile
(2012), in which Ullmann performed.

Twice nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, Ullmann has in recent years shared her life between cinema and stage, both in Norway and abroad. Last year, she directed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya on stage in Oslo, and the year before, she played in German director Georg Maas’ drama-thriller Two Lives [+see also:
film profile

Cineuropa: How did Strindberg come up?
Liv Ullmann:
I have always been preoccupied with Ibsen, but Strindberg has also been at the back of my mind – he is an incredible storyteller, tremendously important, with a huge impact. When I directed Williams, I understood how much he had been influenced by Strindberg; in New York, I once played in Anna Christie by Eugene O’Neill – when he received the Nobel Prize he said he should share it with him.

Then, three years ago, I was asked by my English producers if I would direct a film about a femme fatale – now, I don’t know so much about femmes fatales, so I suggested Miss Julie, and they agreed. I would not have filmed an English-language version in Sweden, where they usually speak Swedish, and not in the UK either, so we opted for Ireland – the Irish are also closer to Scandinavians.

Have you updated the story?
Not at all. We found the wonderful Castle Coole in Fermanagh, Ireland, which has lent a lot to the film, and here we meet Miss Julie, Jean and Christine – three people who try to achieve something in different ways, during a midsummer night. I have rewritten some of the dialogue, and tried to go deeper into the characters, so Chastain’s Miss Julie is not just a sweet, adorable and spoilt girl from the upper classes; she plays with power and radiates coldness, but behind the façade she is uncertain and rootless. 

The story is about what happens between man and woman, rich and poor, old times and new times – the class struggle we also have in the world today, where the privileged few have everything, and most people own nothing. Jean wants to be something he wasn’t born to be; most probably he will not succeed, but he never gives up. Christine is happy; she is proud of her class and the choices she makes. Miss Julie does not feel she is seen or heard, so what does she do? She goes down to the kitchen, messes around with the others, tries to rouse feelings that aren’t there, until she withdraws completely. 

Are you planning more films?
I have said before that Miss Julie would be my last film, but lately I have been thinking a lot about my daughter Linn’s novel Grace, about death with dignity; filming that would be a proper way to round off my career, but I shouldn’t talk about it, as we haven’t really discussed it. But my next assignment will be another adaptation – this time from screen to stage – of my 1996 film, Private Confessions; first, Riksteatret, Norway’s national touring theatre, asked me if I would do it, and when Oslo’s Nationaltheatret heard about it, they also wanted to be involved, so they will both be producing. 


Scripted by Bergman about his parents’ complicated relationship, and starring Samuel Fröler, Pernilla August, Max von Sydow and Anita Björk, Private Confessions was originally aired as a two-part television series by Swedish pubcaster SVT in 1996. “A film like Private Confessions makes most films about romance look like films about plumbing,” wrote Roger Ebert in his 1999 review.

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