“OLIVIA”— Olivia, Mlle. Julie and Mlle. Clara

“OLIVIA”

Olivia, Mlle. Julie and Mlle. Clara

Amos Lassen

Director Jacqueline Audry’s “Olivia is believed to have some autobiographical resonances and it revolves around Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) arrival at a French all-girls finishing school run by two elegant headmistresses, Mlle. Julie (Edwige Feuillère) and Mlle. Clara (Simone Simon).  Olivia is almost immediately told by one of her classmates, the student body is divided into two camps: those devoted to Mlle. Julie  and those to Mlle. Clara.

It soon 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 when Mlle. Julie promises to stop by Olivia’s 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, since she feels that it is the “best thing to do.”

“Olivia” is about the walls of the boarding school potentially functioning as a haven-like space for lesbian feelings and desires apart from the world, something  that Mlle. Julie  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 vehemently refuses such things.

This 1951 French film about a lusty all-girls boarding school remains as strange and sensational as ever. The film’s opening tone of girlish playfulness and its quaint period atmosphere shifts in fits is actually quite lurid, There is not much titillation but there is a lot of psychological warning. 

Mlle. Clara is a caricature of manipulative, neurotic femininity—all flounce and lace and coquettishness. Her pouting and obviously feigned illness (she suffers from “migraines” when she gets upset) is both a scheme to earn Miss Julie’s sympathy and a passive-aggressive jealous brooding over the fact that the students seem to prefer Miss Julie to her. The primary arc is the evolving relationship between Olivia and Miss Julie, some of which is depicted in private in their one-on-one scenes and much of which is acted out in classroom and dining hall sequences and this public display of tension makes the story very shocking.

Olivia struggles with her increasingly passionate crush on her teacher, and Miss Julie’s feelings for Olivia also cone forth moving between restraint and torment. There are many scenes in which the student recklessly makes known her feelings for the teacher. We see mysterious and confusing implications that suggest lesbianism. The move toward an overt explicit showcase of lesbian desire comes in the latter part of the film and becomes more astounding as lesbian love becomes audible and visible.

Miss Julie finds reasons to go visit Olivia in her room at bedtime. On one particular night, as Miss Julie goes to tuck Olivia in, we see a genuine hunger and she tells Olivia to shut her eyes and then leans over and kisses them far more intensely than she should. Olivia clutches Miss Julie’s hand and begins kissing it.

Numerous similar scenes follow yet we never see the women actually kiss. The scenes are the classic tortured images of lesbian desire we expect from films made before the lifting of the Production Code in the 1960s. “Olivia” moves from subdued period piece to lurid melodrama, we wish we could cheer for the lesbians to end up together in this weird movie.

It’s now widely accepted that emotional complexities did indeed roil beneath the visually staid surfaces of so many of the French “cinema of quality” films of the forties and fifties and this is a prime example.

Jacqueline Audry was one of the very few female directors working in French cinema at the time. This is her fifth feature and is a work of bold, barely repressed sensuality, in which the unspoken yet ever-present love between women threatens to boil over. “Olivia: is part of the cinematic tradition of using a boarding school setting, with its potential for unsentimental education, as a breeding ground for tentative lesbian attraction but Audry’s film goes way beyond innuendo, while still stopping just shy of the full-on romance it desperately wants to be.

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