|The story, which is believed to have some autobiographical resonances, revolves around Olivia arriving at a French all-girls finishing school run by two elegant headmistresses, Mlle. Julie (played by celebrated French stage actress Edwige Feuillère) and Mlle. Clara (Simone Simon, famous for films made on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly Cat People). As Olivia is almost immediately informed by one of her classmates, the student body is divided into two camps Olivia at first becomes enamored with the former after aiding in a number of nighttime rituals including combing her hair, etc.
The seductive if playful undertone to Mlle. Clara’s voice is the first indication of what exactly the affection of the student body might include. But after being moved by one of the nightly recitations of a Racine play, Olivia catches her instructor’s eye and she quickly establishes herself as Mlle. Julie’s favorite pupil. The admiration quickly begins to take on a more amorous dimension, which becomes obvious after Laura, Julie’s past favorite, reappears at the school. Despite befriending Laura, Olivia can’t help but feel competitive for their teacher’s attention, and Olivia even attempts to ask Laura to help her define her feelings for Mlle. Julie. “Do you love her?” she asks Laura, who doesn’t seem to catch the true nature of the question and responds that she owes everything to the headmistress.
The plot thickens as it becomes clear that beneath the antagonism of the two headmistresses is a once-intimate relationship of an unspecified nature between the two that at some point went bad. It all comes to a head during the annual Christmas party—complete with male drag by the students—that Mlle. Julie promises to stop by her room later that night(!). At this point it is made explicit that this is not merely some one-sided schoolgirl infatuation of Olivia’s but that there are some kind of mutual feelings involved, which is emphasized by Mlle. Julie’s unexpected decision to leave the school, as it is the “best thing to do.”
Olivia is more about the walls of the boarding school potentially functioning as a haven-like space for lesbian feelings and desires apart from the world, something Mlle. Julie sternly warns Olivia of in the climatic sequence. Mlle. Julie seems aware that there might be potential for sustaining a lesbian relationships in this cloistered, isolated setting—as it might have indeed done for Mlles. Julie and Clara at one point—but the reality is that the world outside brutally refuses such things (“and what if you are defeated, Olivia?” Mlle. Julie evocatively but elusively muses at the end of the film, not specifying as to what exactly she is speaking of). Here we have a take on the possibility of love and desire between women in pre-Stonewall cinema.