From the vantage point of the toxic masculinity in which we men were raised, most female friendships are indistinguishable from love affairs. The openness, the tenderness, even the acrimony all exist at deeper levels than we tend to allow ourselves outside of committed, romantic relationships. So it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly when the lesbian themes in Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia graduate from subtext to text. But even if I failed to pick up clues from the very opening scene, the power of this tragic melodrama of love and jealousy would not have been diminished.
Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) is an English teenager who has just enrolled at an all girls French boarding school (the most prominent male character in the movie is the dog). Upon her arrival, she and her fancy ribbon hair net soon become the favorite not only of the other students but of the two women who run the school, Mlle. Julie (Edwige Feuillère) and Mlle. Cara (Simone Simon). The two adult women are both dear friends and, apparently, deep rivals; every girl at the school seems to have pledged fealty to either the “Julist” or “Carist” faction. The popularity of Olivia with both women ignites powder kegs of stored animosity and insecurity.
Of course, Mlles. Julie and Cara are more than simply good friends. And a number of the students, Olivia included, are also in love with their chosen lady. Yet, with the exception of a pivotal kiss on the neck, the atmosphere is never explicitly erotic, though Mlle. Julie almost placing her hands on Olivia’s waste and then thinking better of it is an undeniably charged moment. Still, the imbalance in age and power between headmistress and student are uncomfortable and risk bolstering nasty stereotypes of the predatory lesbian.
Ultimately, however, Audry’s light touch succeeds by keeping Olivia a deceptively cosmetic-seeming affair. From the soft, low-key lighting to the romantic shots that use gliding dolly moves to frame and reframe the various groupings and pairings of the academy’s habitants, this is off-the-rack melodrama, through and through. But, just like the school itself, Olivia thrums with the rhythm of life, pain and joy just beneath its pretty trappings.
Olivia is newly restored, though notes on the process do not seem to be available from distributor Icarus Films. While some issues of minor softness and inconsistency in grading pop up here and there, the final product overall both looks and sounds impressive, especially for a film that has been largely ignored for the better part of 70 years.
Apart from trailers, the only special feature on the disc is a 1957 interview with Audry.