This review by Eloise Ross was originally published in Senses of Cinema’s Melbourne Cinematheque Annotations on Film. Grateful thanks to Eloise for permission to republish.
Tickets to this session and other info about the festival can be found at https://tix.queerscreen.org.au/Events/Olivia
Published pseudonymously in 1949 under the author name ‘Olivia’, Dorothy Bussy’s novel Olivia was likely written thanks to the influence of the 1931 German film Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform, Leontine Sagan). The film version, Olivia (Jacqueline Audry, 1951), was made from an adapted screenplay by the director’s sister, Colette Audry, and this trifecta of female authors is meaningful as their feeling resonates through the text. Olivia traces a similar track to the German film, taking place at a girls’ finishing school outside of Paris run by two headmistresses, Julie (Edwige Feuillère) and Cara (Simone Simon), who are each favoured by factions amongst the students. Jacqueline Audry worked with Max Ophuls in her early career in the film industry, and an influence from the older director can be sensed in her attention to the fascinations of a young woman, and her film’s fascination with the windows, staircase, and hidden spaces of a house. Apparently, Ophuls had wanted to make Audry’s earlier adaptation Gigi (1949), which also focuses on the passionate yearning of an adolescent girl.
Audry’s films are part of a sophisticated period of filmmaking in France, one that saw a wealth of literary adaptations and period films, with intricate characters and camerawork supported by dialogue. This may be a reason for her lack of recognition amongst critics and historians; her work was considered too traditional, lacking creativity and vision, and was disrupted by the irreverence of the French New Wave. But she is set apart by “her consistent interest in transgressive women figures”, something for which she should be praised, with note taken of her relationships with women in her life such as her mother and sister – who was close with Simone de Beauvoir – and also her connection with the professional work of the great early 20th century writer Colette. (As Carrie Tarr notes, Audry’s works are often shown in homage to Colette rather than as part of a focus on the director herself, as shown for instance with Il Cinema Ritrovato’s retrospective in 2017.) In some ways, perhaps Audry was as transgressive as many of her heroines, and tragically held back by a variation on this same conventional narrative – a woman forced to struggle for her own recognition.
While Julie and Cara vie for the students’ affections – Julie by taking advantage of her physical proximity to them, and Cara from the confines of her bedroom, afflicted by a real or imagined illness – they also vie for each other’s. Theirs seems like a relationship that may have existed prior to the film’s temporal spotlight, but was discontinued due to societal restrictions or the complications of desire – and in this space of doubt, Audry and her actors insert a great intensity. The staircase becomes a central element of the school and its entanglements, a place from which girls would observe others, or on which they would perform for others at the school. It is circular, snaking around the walls of the school’s antechamber, a link between the classrooms and the bedrooms of the girls, and leading, too, to Julie and Cara’s boudoirs. The camera, which often circles or moves freely through the building’s spaces and amongst its residents, has a sensual openness that aligns with the freedom given to the girls at the school.
When Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) first arrives at the school, she is greeted by Mademoiselle Julie; both characters are placed within the doorframe, the interior behind them bustling with schoolgirl activity. Thus, from this early moment, Olivia is separated from her peers, and her individual fascination with the school is differentiated from her alliance with the headmistresses. Later, Olivia flushes over the symptoms of desperate love and adoration to a friend, as though not recognising what they are signs of. Julie tells Olivia that she is too passionate, and yet cannot entirely hide that she is drawn to the student. Her intentions remain restrained, mysterious, and both women may be manipulative, but neither she nor Cara’s actions are seen as outright perverse; their behavior, instead, is tinged with sadness as they each abandon what they love. These are all moments that betray a confusion in the characters, suggesting that something so simple as a need for comfort is out of reach in their society.
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster includes Olivia in a genre she refers to as “lesbian soft-core, girls’-school films”, within which she also includes Mädchen in Uniform and The Wild Party (Dorothy Arzner, 1929) as films that deal with the very specific scenario of female bonding. Given that Audry was often criticised, or at least, like Arzner, left out of the spotlight for her adherence to conventional narrative and storytelling practices, it may be hard for some historians to consider her feminist. Yet perhaps it should emphasised that, as she was introducing non-traditional perspectives – including, for instance, those of cooks and service women in the school – into an otherwise classical format, she was in fact being more subversive than she’s given credit for. As Tarr writes, “Olivia’s discovery of love and desire is thus never experienced through feelings of guilt and shame, though it is accompanied by a realisation that such knowledge cannot be trusted to outsiders.” Her private moments shared with Julie are thus framed as extensions of the first moment they met, alone against a backdrop of students whose interests, although also directed towards the headmistresses, are much less intense.
There are almost no male characters in the film, and when on screen they are not privileged in the frame; seen only from behind, or in profile at some distance, they appear to enforce law from the outside world, with no interest in the minutiae of life inside the school. Their disinterest in the experience of the school, of the feelings and statements of women and girls as individuals and as a group, is symbolic of much of women’s suffering in a world in which women are treated as lesser than men and a hindrance to patriarchal order. This final appearance of a structure of male sensibility, presented without the male gaze, highlights further the misunderstanding amongst men and women; there are occurrences at the school that these men do not comprehend, and their attempts to present some solution render them all but useless.
In the United States, Olivia was released as The Pit of Loneliness, attributing to it some greater sense of melodrama than was contained in the film, and thus aligning it with a number of other Hollywood pictures about isolated women, like The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948). But Olivia has a lasting power and uniqueness, as much due to its classical French origins as in spite of them. That the actress playing the title role was prompted to change her name to Marie-Claire Olivia was perhaps due to the powerful sensuality of the script and of her interactions with Feuillère and Simon on screen. Whether or not you interpret Olivia as condemning lesbian desire, Audry’s film manages to explore complexities and subtleties in how women act in their relationships and in their professional spaces, precisely by allowing them an unresolvable ambiguity.