Anyone who was a feminist in the 1970s knows about Olivia Records, a collective (of course!) specializing in women’s music which produced over 40 albums and a legendary tenth-anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall. The name of the company was taken from the groundbreaking 1949 lesbian novel, Olivia, written by Dorothy Bussy, sister to the Bloomsbury stalwart Lytton Strachey. Bussy based Olivia on her experiences at a French boarding school where she was both student and teacher (Eleanor Roosevelt was one of her pupils), and also drew on the tradition of boarding-school-set novels such as Colette’s Claudine at School and Christa Winsloe’s The Girl Manuela.
Given that history, you might expect a fairly direct treatment of lesbian themes from a film of Olivia, especially since it was both directed and written by women (Jacqueline Audry and her sister Colette Audry, respectively). You might also expect some steaminess, even though this film was made in 1951. You’d be disappointed on both scores, however, particularly the latter—Olivia is much more concerned with the jealousies and loyalties among the girls at a French finishing school than it is with their sexuality. For all that, it’s not a bad film, but does seem a bit of a cheat, like all those 1950s and 1960s (and 1970s and on and on) American films that somehow lost the gay content from their source material, to evade censorship and pander to the prejudices of a mainstream audience. I have no knowledge of the state of censorship in French films at the time, and hence no way to know if Olivia was toned down out of necessity or for some other reason, but it doesn’t really matter. The film is what it is, and must be taken as such.
The film begins with young Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) arriving at an all-girl boarding school in a carriage driven by the amiable and chatty cook Victoire (Yvonne de Bray). We soon learn that the girls of this school have sorted themselves into two camps—one allied with the beautiful headmistress, Mlle. Julie (Edwige Feuillière), and others with the mysterious invalid Mlle. Cara (Simone Simon). Olivia is fresh meat in the undeclared war between the two women, and learns quickly the mysteriously high stakes of a game she’s apparently new to playing—when she asks about a photo in an album, for instance, Mlle. Cara flips out, and another girl informs Olivia that the girls in picture had been one of Mlle. Cara’s favorites. Later, after a field trip in the exclusive company of Mlle. Julie, Olivia is surprised when the other takes her hand, and not in a manner one would expect from a headmistress to a student.
Olivia is cinema of quality—the costumes and sets are stunning beautiful, the acting is good, and the script well-written. The spirit of the film belongs to a time and place that seems simply bizarre today, an almost entirely all-female world in which young girls with talent and intelligence are completely occupied with acquiring the kind of polish that will win them good husbands (and are taught by women who surely could have done more with their lives if the opportunity had been there). Still, there’s some subversive content in there as well—desires and tensions that can’t entirely be contained by the women’s restrictive clothing and perfectly done hairstyles. A prior scandal is hinted at early on, and there’s more to come, but you have to be willing to read between the lines to know what’s really going on. Olivia is definitely worth seeing, for its craft and for being directed by a pioneering French female director, but its impact is far more cerebral than emotional. | Sarah Boslaugh
Olivia is distributed on Blu-ray and DVD by Icarus Films. Extras include the original trailer (4 min.), the 2019 trailer (2 min.), and a 1957 interview with director Jacqueline Audry (9 min).