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November 26, 2019

Olivia

olivia.jpg

Jacqueline Audry - 1951
Icarus Home Video BD Region A

I have not read the source novel written by Dorothy Bussy, published in 1949. But what I have read of Bussy is of interest. Bussy's only novel was inspired by her own time as an English girl at a French boarding school founded by Marie Souvestre and her partner, Caroline Dussaut, in Fontainebleau, France. Among the daughters of the socially prominent, Eleanor Roosevelt was also a student. Bussy's novel was initially published anonymously by Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The novel takes place around 1882-1883, when Bussy was seventeen, and the school closed.

Jacqueline Audry reportedly toned down the lesbian elements in the novel. Not that they are entirely absent, the most explicit moment is of a virtually vampiric kiss on the shoulder by the headmistress with one of her students. To view the film based on what was not shown or strictly through contemporary eyes would be a mistake. The original French trailer, with accompanying song, puts Audry's film in the context of the time it was made, as the story of an adolescent young woman whose feelings of romance are directed towards the teacher that she admires, whom she actively seeks for approval.

Olivia comes from England to the countryside outside of Paris and the boarding school run by Miss Julie and Miss Cara. It's immediately noted by one of the students that the two women have their devotees. While nothing is spelled out, there is the suggested relationship between Julie and Cara, as well as Cara and another teacher. Meanwhile, Olivia's infatuation with Miss Julie becomes increasingly overt. Unlike films with a similar setting, notably Madchen in Uniform or The Children's Hour, there is no punishment meted out for any suggestion of lesbian attraction.

Jacqueline Audry would need to have more films restored and available for better assessment. I would recommend the brief interview with actor and gay activist Jean Danet, from 1957, included in the blu-ray. Audry would appear to have been in a double bind - restricted to making film adaptations of novels by women, several of which were commercially successful at the time of release, yet somewhat arbitrarily lumped with the directors of the "tradition of quality" by the Cahiers du Cinema critics who later became the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. Audry's last directorial credit was in 1967. Olivia was released in the U.S. in 1954 under the title, The Pit of Loneliness.

Audry began her career as an assistant to several notable filmmakers, primarily G. W. Pabst and Max Ophuls. Her visual style seems most influenced by Ophuls in the use of traveling shots. Several times the camera takes in a full view of the characters and their surroundings. A shot introducing the school and the students follows a trio of girls, holding hands while running down a staircase. A shot of a Christmas Eve party shows the girls pairing up, with the girls in male costumes waltzing with girls in female costumes, while Miss Julie and Miss Cara briefly dance together. The film ends as it began, with Olivia in a carriage with the school cook, Victoire. There is the suggestion of the school being isolated psychologically as well as geographically from the rest of the world.

The earlier U.S. release had a running time of 88 minutes. The restored Olivia is 96 minutes long. Based on the New Times review, Audry's film adaptations from novels by Colette, Gigi and Minne, had U.S. releases. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther's wrote a generally favorable review, although some of his choice of words may cause eye rolling among contemporary readers: "Although it skirts along the edges of an area of unnatural love confined within the delicate environment of a fashionable French finishing school, there is nothing indecorous or offensive in the picture as it is played."

Let me also direct you to the review by the Self-Styled Siren, written when the restored Olivia had its theatrical release.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 26, 2019 07:42 AM