Sunday, July 19, 2020
Jacqueline Audry | Olivia
by Douglas Messerli
Pierre Laroche (screenplay, based on a novel by Dorothy Bussy), Jacqueline Audry (director) Olivia / 1951
Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia of 1951 reminds one some of Leontine Sagan’s 1931 film Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform). Both take place in well-to-do private girls’ schools, and both involve teachers who compete with each other for their students’ love. Yet, almost immediately, the comparisons quickly fall away. The caring gentleness of one of the head mistresses, Fräulein von Bernburg interpreted as love by one of her young charges, although filled with lesbian possibilities in the 1931 movie, has none of the more openly queer coding of Audry’s film.
In Olivia—named after the young British girl who arrives to the freethinking and open-minded French establishment directly from a restrictive rather religious institution—the innocent neophyte is almost immediately required to take positions with regard to the two women, the beautiful, pampered, and manipulative Mlle. Cara (Simone Simon) and the pleasant and loving, if more authoritarian Mlle. Julie (Edwige Feuillère) who together run the school, and who apparently were lovers until a young protégé Laura (Elly Norden) came—unintentionally so it appears—between them.
We’re never completely filled in with the details of how these two charming and caring women suddenly pulled away from one another; we know only that, according to the young girls who try to explain things to Olivia, the school is now divided into “Julistes” and “Caristas.” Olivia would, after her rather harsh learning experiences of the past, love them both. But Cara, who seems to be endlessly suffering from migraines, and as often as she calls her young admirers to her, just as quickly sends them away, gradually takes second place to the far more outgoing Julie, who engages each of her students in very personal ways (vaguely recalling the manner of the influential teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, prognosticating her student’s futures). Julie describes Olivia’s major asset as “grace.”
Yet it is her teacher’s voice, as Julie nightly reads scenes from Racine and others, that first enchants Mlle. Julie’s impressionable pupil. The first time Olivia hears her teacher read she quite literally falls into a kind trance, the other Julistes snickering that the new girl has quite definitely joined their “camp.”
But it is also the little things that Julie does, regularly asking Olivia to sit in the chair closest to her as she reads, commenting somewhat positively about Olivia’s quick mind, and, finally, taking her on a semi-educational day-trip to Paris which ends up, on the train home, with Julie gently touching her knee and stroking her student’s hand.
If all the girls in Sagan’s movie cannot wait for their nightly kiss from Fräulein von Bernburg, for Olivia the gentle kiss proffered by Mlle. Julie sends her into near ecstasy and a heady spin into a off-kilter world that we can only perceive as something deeper that a typical school-girl crush for a caring teacher. Time and again throughout Audry’s brilliantly filmed work (cinematography by Christian Matras), we recognize that the relationship between student and teacher betrays, as reviewer Caden Mark Gardner wrote in Hyperallergic Weekend that the girl’s “attraction runs deeper, is knottier” than others who feel for their beloved teacher.
When Laura briefly returns to the school for a visit, Olivia asks her whether she loves Mlle. Julie, to which the girl replies “yes.” Olivia continues, “but doesn’t your heart stop beating when her hand touches yours?” No, responds Laura, “I love her; “nothing more, “it’s just that simple.”
Soon, after, Laura again leaves the school with the belief that it would be “better for Mlle. Julie,” signifying that Julie’s love towards her continues to stand in the way of Julie’s and Cara’s relationship. But it will be no better with Laura gone, suggests the Italian teacher to Olivia, because now there is you.
This movie’s climax occurs during the school’s annual Christmas party, when select girls in remarkable costumes pair up with other girls dressed as young men, together dancing at the seeming pleasure of the two school masters sitting near the tree.
Despite Olivia’s stunning Indian garb, it is Cécile, dressed in the stars and stripes of her US homeland, a dress she herself has designed, that receives Julie’s praise, ending with an intense kiss to the girl’s neck.
Observing Olivia’s jealousy of seeing another girl elevated from her own place in Julie’s affections, Mlle Julie whispers into Olivia’s ear that after the party she will visit her room, bringing her bon-bons. Olivia is so delighted in the prospect that she cannot even sleep; yet Julie never appears, the teacher telling the student the next day, while resisting with great difficulty placing her hands upon Olivia’s waist to comfort the child, that she is sorry she has hurt her last night.
I always try to do my best. My best for you, and for me.
[she goes to the door, and turns her head back into the room]
I like you, my dear. More than you think.
The next day Julie announces that she is leaving the school for a new teaching position. But we know that the true reason is Cara’s jealousy and the temptations that Olivia presents, all fanned by the flames of Cara’s quite evil minion Frau Riesener (Lesly Meynard), who is currently caring for a new round of migraine’s her mistress is suffering.
Exhausted, the elderly teacher temporarily gives over Cara’s care to Reisener’s arch enemy, the always hungry and somewhat comic figure, Mlle. Dubois (Suzanne Dehelly). Julie travels to town on business—presumably, after what we hear near film’s end, transferring all of her financial interests in the school to Cara.
Soon after Julie returns, Cara is found dead.
Through a brief series of questions by an intruding patriarchal panel, who put suspicion on both Mlle. Dubois and Mlle. Julie, we perceive that Cara has taken up the key which Dubois has mistakenly left behind, and overdosed on her medicine.
As the children gather about Cara’s door, hoping to see her body, Julie stridently demands they leave. Cara is the only one she ever loved, she declares, let me be alone with her coffin tonight.
So is Olivia sent home, to her haunted world of religiosity in which the joys and pains of love which the girl has experienced would surely be described as “unnatural,” but which our protagonist unapologetically declares in a printed quote at the beginning of the film: “Love has always been the key matter of my life. May the Gods grant me not to have profaned such a pure and cherished memory.”
Mlle. Julie, true to her intention of leaving, will soon follow.
Cara has left the school to Riesener in her will, but with only a few, if any students remaining, the harpy is left with little support. Even the magnificently earthy cook, Victoire (Yvonne de Bray), who begins this film with observations of the joys the school experienced in the “old days,” determines it is time to move on.
Audry made 13 feature films after working for years as director Max Ophüls’ assistant. Olivia, one of her most outstanding works, has now been restored, and finally can be recognized as one of the most important films made about lesbian love.
Los Angeles, July 19, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2020).