'Olivia': Film Review

OLIVIA Still 1 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Icarus Films and Distrib Films US
A discovery interesting for more than its ahead-of-its-time lesbian themes.

Jacqueline Audry's newly restored 1951 melodrama finds a web of attraction and jealousy in a girls' boarding school.

Released in France in 1951 and based on a novel that was self-consciously risque, Jacqueline Audry's Olivia sounds like a bonanza for viewers seeking new chapters in the history of queer cinema: The namesake character, a semi-autobiographical stand-in for novelist Dorothy Bussy, is a teenage student who falls desperately in love with the headmistress of her new school. That's far from the only forbidden attraction in a scenario that is more open than one might expect (without ever being erotically explicit) about intense bonds between women; but nearly seven decades later, the film has a dramatic pull independent of its historical novelty. Whether or not they're moved to dig into the further filmography of Audry, a woman whose literary adaptations were the kind of thing the New Wave would soon trample, few viewers will walk away from a screening feeling they've merely done their feminist homework.

Marie-Claire Olivia — who was evidently so thrilled to make her screen debut that she changed her name legally — plays the title character, a teen who has just left a strict religious school, and is moving to one run by a friend of the family, Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillere). Housed in a small mansion, this community is something to behold: a whirlwind of lace, frills and high spirits, where students seem perpetually cheerful and welcoming of their new friend. "Olivia, let me pick you a rose," one girl beams, before another suggests, "Let's run in the forest!"

When she's out of earshot, though, the students whisper about where Olivia's loyalties will fall — with Miss Julie, or with Miss Cara (Simone Simon, of Cat People), the school's other headmistress. We don't understand the nature of the factions (and the girls don't seem at odds with each other), but the older women do seem to have staked out physical turf: While beautiful, refined Julie gives readings in the parlor and sweeps through hallways radiating goodwill, poor Cara is mostly confined to her room, reclining on a daybed while her favorite girls tend to her. The chronic affliction keeping her there is unnamed and perhaps self-invented, a manifestation of some sort of rift between the two women; the single unpleasant person in the house, the Teutonically stern Frau Riesener (Lesly Meynard) jealously insists on silence when Miss Cara is trying to rest.

From the start, the script (adapted from the novel by Colette Audry and Pierre Laroche) offers dialogue full of allusions to personal drama, jealousy and unusually strong friendships; but the students themselves behave mostly as if they're blind to any friction. It's only Olivia who seems incapable of keeping herself in check: As she basks in Julie's aura, she not only craves her approval (these teachers aren't shy about having pets) but dreams of something more. "Have you ever been in love?" she asks a classmate, and the question registers more as Olivia's own announcement that she is.

In the role, Marie-Claire Olivia exhibits a starry-eyed enthusiasm that may be more emotionally true than it is dramatically engaging. (According to IMDb, she only made two films after this debut.) But Feuillere holds the screen in all kinds of ways, conveying the psychology of a woman who understands the effect she has on impressionable girls and wants to wield it for their betterment. Impressed with Olivia for reasons a viewer mightn't really understand — is it simply because she's the new girl? — she spends time alone with her and gets more close physically than is wise; but then she rebuffs Olivia's desperate overtures.

The pic eventually gives Julie a chance to explain the mixed messages she sends, even as it leaves a great deal unsaid about this and other relationships. As it concerns not just attractions between women, but between adults and not-quite-adults, the film's preference for hints over statements is understandable. But there's something about this portrait that is appropriate beyond worries over 1950s standards of decency: In a story that originates in a teenager's subjective experience during an intense infatuation, it's little surprise that we feel nearly everyone in that house might have, at one point, been sleeping with someone else.

Some welcome wry banter between the house's head cook (Yvonne De Bray) and its always-hungry math teacher (Suzanne Dehelly) leavens the hormonal intensity while also confirming that the drama isn't all in Olivia's head. This little school has witnessed a few too many dramas like Olivia's to stay in business for long. But the older women in the kitchen understand that nothing happening upstairs is the end of the world.

Production company: Memnon Films
Distributors: Icarus Films, Distrib Films US
Cast: Edwige Feuillere, Marie-Claire Olivia, Simone Simon, Yvonne De Bray, Suzanne Dehelly, Marina De Berg, Lesly Meynard
Director: Jacqueline Audry
Screenwriters: Colette Audry, Pierre Laroche
Producer: Jean Velter
Director of photography: Christian Matras
Production designer: Jean D'Eaubonne
Costume designer: Rene Decrais
Editor: Marguerite Beauge
Composer: Pierre Dancan

In French
96 minutes