Film

The Raw, Unshakeable Queer Love in 1951’s Olivia

Jacqueline Audry’s powerfully complex film set in a 19th-century French boarding school for girl resonates even today, and it just got a new restoration.

Still from Olivia (1951) (courtesy Icarus Films and Distrib Films US)

Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia feels shockingly sensual, generous, and alive. It is a landmark in lesbian film representation that had for too long been censored and ignored for reasons that are unfortunately obvious. Icarus Films is set to release this on home video in the United States, (in its original release in the States, it was censored and renamed with the dour title The Pit of Loneliness) that will include a run in New York at Quad Cinema starting Friday, August 16. The film presents a negotiation in how an incredibly skilled filmmaker was able to — despite numerous obstacles — film queerness. Olivia belongs in discussions with Death in Venice, Maurice, and Carol in great film adaptations of queer literature and hopefully this release boosts its reputation in that regard.

As with many works of literature on gay subject matter at the time, Olivia by Englishwoman Dorothy Bussy was published pseudonyomously in 1949. Even under the well-known publishing house Hogarth Press (founded by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard Woolf), the idea of attaching real-name authorship where the content involved lesbianism, and one involving school headmistress and her pupil, was unthinkable, and so the author was presented as written by the eponymous protagonist of Olivia when published. The novel was said to be semi-autobiographical for Bussy, who had been educated in France’s “Les Ruches” girls schools run by Marie Souvestre.

Still from Olivia (courtesy Icarus Films and Distrib Films US)

Set in late-19th century France, Olivia is about an all-girls boarding school run by two competitive headmistresses Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillère) and Miss Cara (Simone Simon, best known by American audiences for Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People). In this picturesque (shot by cinematography great Christian Matras) matriarchal world where men are rarely around lies factions and battlelines between the two headmistresses and the female pupils they favor. Enter the new student Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia), whose youth and wide-eyed optimism have her fit right into the school, but there is something that separates her. A queering otherness to Olivia can be detected in her name, which is English and not French. She has a history with Miss Julie, once a family friend but now a faded memory. The homosocial bonds of women and the feminine within the school slowly reveal themselves to involve same-sex attraction, and the frankness with which Audry — a collaborator with Max Ophüls who would make her mark doing many women-centered period dramas, and her screenwriter, her sister Colette Audry (not to be confused with the iconic queer French writer Colette) — depicts it on-screen is quite extraordinary. The film’s queer coding penetrates both its verbal language and body language. Simon’s Miss Cara is a pouty flirt who loves the attention of her pupils surrounding her on her fainting couch. In one scene she goes through a photo album with Olivia beside her and summarizes her dealings with former students as though they were terrible exes. Cara and Miss Julie’s interactions point to a deeply complicated past, alluding to a sexual history, and their dynamic running closer to volatile married couple than colleagues. The girls characterize their school as free-roaming and independent, not consigned to lines and restrictions, which possibly include sexual freedom. The school girls discuss the beauty of their headmistresses. There is no open lust, but these are conversations that could be described as girls discussing their crushes. Sometimes the subtext is the text.

But Olivia’s attraction runs deeper, is knottier, and she increasingly becomes aware that her love is different from how other students would characterize their affection for Miss Cara or Miss Julie. She is overcome with emotion listening to Miss Julie’s book readings, she does not hesitate to travel and get close to her teacher, and there is a moment of her touching Miss Julie’s clothing that is of such intense lust and pining that it stands out in its intimacy, a private scene of queer desire for public viewing. Miss Julie initially is reticent but flattered, keeping up her professionalism. Yet, she cannot resist. While knowing it is deeply inappropriate and an abuse of power, she too shares an attraction with Olivia that includes a promised visit to her bedroom with candy after a Christmas party. Olivia trembles in ecstasy, leaning on the walls to barely keep her balance. But, much like stories of this time, there cannot be a happy ending for these women. Still, the film does not punish Olivia’s love and feelings even if for its time it would be deemed “unnatural.” While her “crush” on Miss Julie on its face has the fleeting energy tied to her youth, there is something raw and unshakeable that Olivia must wrestle with for the rest of her life moving forward in a society that cannot know as they cannot even comprehend such feelings.

Olivia begins with a quote from our protagonist, “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.” Olivia’s lovestruck, aching experience and self-realization are made vivid by Jacqueline Audry. Exceptional in more ways than one, Olivia proves to be ripe for rediscovery.

Olivia opens at Quad Cinema Friday August 16.

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