“OLIVIA”— Forbidden Passion Among Women (Before Stonewall)


Forbidden Passion

Amos Lassen

Newly restored by Les Films de la Pleiade in collaboration with Les Films du Jeudi with the support of the CNC, this tale of forbidden passion in an elite girls’ boarding school, directed by pioneering filmmaker Jacqueline Audry (1908-1977), comes to theaters after being unavailable for nearly 70 years.

Vito Russo in “The Celluloid Closet”, his classic account of homosexuality and cinema. “It was a perfect ‘shadow people’ film for the Fifties. It featured dark doings in school corridors and ended in the obligatory tragic circumstances. American censors assured the delicacy of treatment for which “Pit of Loneliness” (an alternative title for the film) was touted. One censor’s notation read: ‘Eliminate in Reel 5D: Scene of Miss Julie holding Olivia in close embrace and kissing her on the mouth. Reason: Immoral, would tend to corrupt morals.’” (How far we’ve come)

Director Audry takes viewers behind the doors of an elite 19th-century boarding school for young women, a world almost entirely without men. The two mistresses of the house, Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillere) and Miss Cara (Simone Simon), are at war; they rouse passion, hatred and unexpected reversals of loyalty competing for the affections of their students.

Taking a subtle approach to her film’s taboo subtext, Audry explores the students’ discovery of attraction and the awakening of their senses. But for temptresses Julie and Cara, power is as strong a motivator as suppressed carnal desire.

Olivia’s young actresses live in a somber, Gothic space. Around the school’s circular staircase, the teens observe each other; and the serpentine hallways, waiting rooms, and vestibules of the building. At a time when homosexuality was not accepted and male directors dominated the film world, Audry’s film is a surprise and a revelation.
Audry is probably the most well-known of the several female directors who made films in France after the heady avant-garde years of the 1920’s and Agnès Varda appeared on the film scene in the late 50’s.

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.

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