Bewitched by “Olivia”

Kyle Stevens considers the 1951 film “Olivia,” an obscure queer classic from an under-appreciated.

Bewitched by “Olivia”

LARGELY UNAVAILABLE FOR DECADES, Jacqueline Audry’s 1951 Olivia has felt like a chimera to film historians, and particularly to scholars of queer film history, who have been teased over the years by scattered mentions of its depiction of lesbian desire. Now, thanks to Icarus Films and Distrib Films US, who have recently released Olivia in theaters and on disc, we discover that not only is the movie real, it is fascinating. When we encounter such older films for the first time, we tend to look and listen both as we imagine the film’s contemporary audience might have done and as our current selves, a phenomenon especially pronounced for queer audiences aware of the history of censorship. In the case of Olivia, however, the audacity of its queerness feels not only incredible for its moment but, as if by magic, for ours too. It arrives in a cultural context fascinated by depictions of occult imagery, as in The VVitch (Robert Eggers, 2015) and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), and with casting those images in a queer light — with seeing the decision to give in to “the dark side” as ironically bright.

French film historian Carrie Tarr writes of Olivia: “As a film directed by a woman, based on a novel by a woman, adapted by a woman (Colette Audry, Jacqueline’s sister), featuring a virtually all-female cast and a narrative based on lesbian desire, Olivia is quite untypical of French cinema production of the 40s and 50s.” Indeed. The film is based on English writer Dorothy Bussy’s autobiographical novel — originally published anonymously due to its erotic lesbian content — from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press. Colette Audry frequently collaborated with Simone de Beauvoir (Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième sexe was published in 1949), and the person who brought Bussy’s book to Jacqueline Audry’s attention, after she had adapted two of her novels, was the mononymous famed writer and provocateur Colette.

Given this production history, it is unsurprising that from the beginning Olivia establishes concerns about identity, detection, gender, meaning, and the problem of rooting one’s self-identification — both in person and at the movies — in words and images whose meaning is determined by others. It opens with the titular character riding a rickety carriage chauffeured by saucy old Victoire, who informs her that her name “doesn’t mean much,” situating Olivia’s selfhood as a dilemma and perhaps suggesting that she (like the screen before us) is subject to others’ projections. Olivia arrives at her lush new boarding school, Les Avons, run by headmistresses Cara and elegant Julie, who are also a couple, and who exemplify the brunette/blonde pairing so endemic to mid-20th-century white lesbian imagery. Les Avons houses an assortment of faculty and students of various nationalities, including stern German teacher (and Cara’s Dom) Frau Riesener and ever-hungry math teacher Miss Dubois. Olivia quickly falls for Julie and avowedly declares her love. (Even when the dialogue resorts to euphemisms, as when Julie whispers to Olivia that she will visit her at night and “bring her candy,” the last thing one expects is for Julie to show up with candy.) Equally remarkable, Olivia suffers no resistance to her queer desires, no shame or guilt, no movement through the depths of self-ignorance. Problems arise as Cara and Olivia grow jealous over Julie’s many other conquests; significantly, Cara does not want Julie to herself but wants Julie to share the girls. On one hand, and without giving too much away, the ending punishes Julie and Olivia for their transgressions. But given the fact that the remainder of the faculty also sleep with each other and students, we might well suppose Les Avons’s practice of free love will continue after this story ends. What this world would not tolerate is a favorite, an individualist, in its midst. (Although I don’t want to comment on the self-evident impropriety of teacher-student relations, it is refreshing to visit a fictional realm in which lesbian desire circulates unchecked and relatively unfetishized.)

Beyond the story line, Audry’s style deepens Olivia’s queer sensibility. For example, after their initial meeting, Olivia watches Julie through an oval window frame, which is visually echoed in the bedroom mirror in which Olivia then studies her face.

This moment captures an experience arguably specific to young queers: of wanting the object of desire and also desiring, through some form of alchemical will, to become like that object. Such moments, too, suggest that Audry may have indeed been making her film for queer audiences, inviting them to reflect on their own attitudes toward the film’s frame and the visions of identity it contains.

Perhaps relevant to understanding Audry’s formal care is her experience as assistant director to G. W. Pabst and Max Ophüls. We might see all three artists as mutually influential; each are adept at expressive camera movements and creating dynamic tensions between artificial and realist moments. The flow of Audry’s camera highlights that, while some students may prefer Cara and others Julie, the group remains a collective. The carriage scenes that bookend Olivia’s arrival and departure from Les Avons are shot with obvious rear projection and static framing. Because no other scenes betray such obvious contrivance, the sumptuous world of the school — the fantastic idyll — feels all the more tangible. The theatrical non-space of the carriage scenes also make Olivia’s return to abstemious England less convincing, hollowing out the moralizing nature of the movie’s conclusion.

That the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, who played a fundamental role in shaping the Western film canon, ignored Audry is thus exceptionally egregious, since they celebrated directors like Alfred Hitchcock for precisely such stylistic display. Audry was instead classified as a director of literary costume dramas, a genre denigrated as “feminine” and the major target of François Truffaut’s polemical “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” (1954), which introduced the concept of auteurism as we know it today. As auteurism in Anglophone film criticism developed into a lens that excludes — among others — queer female directors, we might see Audry’s relative absence from film history as a point of origin for this bias. (This is not to say auteurism or consideration of a filmmaker’s expressivity itself is the problem. Global art cinema circulates through somewhat more inclusive auteurist lenses, for example.) Moreover, Truffaut’s central complaint — that “the tradition of quality” reinforced bourgeois values — hardly applies to Audry’s narratives, which often involve lesbian desire funneled through the scapegoat of adolescence (the old “calm down, it’s just a phase” routine). In fact, it makes better sense to position Hitchcock as indebted to Audry’s work (his historical fascination with lesbian iconography, conspicuous from Rebecca [1940] to The Birds [1963], and dating back to his reminiscences of Weimar-era Berlin bars, may be relevant, too). North by Northwest (1959), for example, blends realism and overt artifice to strikingly similar results, particularly in scenes of travel. There is even a conversation about the main character’s name being meaningless.

Olivia enjoyed modest international success upon release, though, according to Tarr, after being “panned by many of the (male) critics,” it was subsequently regarded as yet another narrative that reinscribes queer love as doomed. (The censored version released in the United States had the astonishing title The Pit of Loneliness.) Jump Cut’s 1981 “Filmography of Lesbian Works” erroneously described it as “[a] classic tear-jerker, based on Collette's novel of the same name, and like Mädchen in Uniform, about girls and teachers in a boarding school.” The film’s few critical mentions also relate it to Mädchen, a 1931 German film about a student with a crush on an instructor. Richard Dyer, for example, briefly invokes Olivia’s style — “everything is based on the curve, the spiraling hall staircase, the silhouettes of the head teachers’ costumes, circling camera movements” — to underscore Mädchen’s “masculinity, discipline, rigidity.” More than merely contrasting with Mädchen’s style, we might see Olivia’s as a rejoinder to it, one rooted in its present while transmitted from the future — that is to say, our present.

In the context of 2019, Olivia transmogrifies into a response to cultural interest in witchcraft and the occult, and in seeing occult imagery as advancing (largely white) feminist and queer agendas and subverting heteropatriarchy. This is evident from widespread reports of witches joining together to cast a binding spell on Donald Trump to Netflix’s popular Chilling Adventures of Sabrina program, which features multiple queer story lines as well as a prominent trans character played by a non-binary actor. In cinematic circles, much attention has been given to “elevated horror” films such as The VVitch, Hereditary, and Midsommar. Each of these movies ends similarly: the young adult protagonist forgoes traditional middle-class white family life and takes their place in an occult community. Because of this supposed rejection of bourgeois normativity, many critics and fans have suggested that the depiction of occultism becomes a metaphor for queer difference. Such readings may be available, but Olivia suggests that they fall short, too.

Audry’s film flips the script by making queer desire manifest and occultism metaphorical. We sense this from the very beginning. An opening crawl reads, “Love has always been the chief business of my life. May the Gods grant me not to have profaned a rare and beautiful memory.” By signaling plural deities, the film distances itself from the monotheistic Christian god that dominated French and English thought in the 20th century. It also consistently conjures up images of the black arts. The perfume compress that the girls concoct to remedy Cara’s headache reads like a potion; Frau Riesener materializes from the shadows; Olivia falls for Julie after a ritualistic candle-lit reading. The text is Racine, but Julie’s delivery has the air of incantation, one that enchants Olivia, who walks away mesmerized “as if in a dream,” as one classmate says. When Olivia laments the conditions of her previous school, which was harsh and ascetic due to its orthodox Christian values, Julie replies, “Our lord is much less demanding.” How else are we to understand Julie’s reply if not to suppose that their lord — the indulgent, soft one — contrasts with the Christian one? Then there is Julie’s power to mysteriously heal the ill and, possibly, compel a mysterious death toward the film’s conclusion, through her purposeful recitation of a text about mortality. (There are practically no males in the picture, and even the faces of the male lawmakers investigating this death are barely seen.) The beautiful Les Avons, whose grounds seem to extend forever, is itself almost magical, a feminist enclave, a coven: food is lavish, and domestic labor is not kept below stairs but applauded. The astronomy lab and the enormous round table where Julie returns essays, and at which teacher sits amid students, seem more like spaces to learn sorcery than grammar. More importantly, while Cara and Julie are headmistresses, there is no authoritarian leader, no talk of rules and regulations, no cliques or bullies, no jealousy among the students.

The differences between this and more recent depictions of supernatural communities are striking. Unlike The VVitch, Hereditary, or Midsommar, Olivia’s journey to Les Avons is not presented as a move from one “family” to another. The recently made films allow that one may choose one’s family, but insist that one must have one, and one founded on deeply binaristically gendered divisions. (In Aster’s films, the occult worlds are also cults with clear leaders.) These stories present the occult worlds as scary, things to be resisted by their young adult heroes, implicitly reinforcing Christian hostilities to alternative spiritualties. The coven of The VVitch is obviously more appealing than the protagonist’s abusive puritanical family, but we are enjoined to feel suspense about her choice. The film does not feel the need to explain why she does not simply embrace the opportunity to “go live deliciously,” and so forces its audience to occupy conservative values in order to follow the narrative.

This is why Olivia feels so free, so fresh. It never places you in such an awful spot — a spot that the fans of the other films presumably take pleasure in. Olivia begins where The VVitch ends, as Olivia arrives to live deliciously, and her destination is beautiful, not scary. Olivia reminds us that betraying the status quo is only a struggle for those for whom it’s working, and in so doing, highlights how recent cinematic depictions, while purportedly espousing the subversiveness of occultism and the rejection of traditional values, do so only at their the ends, rendering them safe and ensuring that audiences need never confront the violence of those values or what abandoning them might look like. It also guarantees that the focus of the stories stays on the family or heterosexual couple. In this way, they offer an empty gesture of subversion. They give audiences a thrill without clash.

While a film as rich as Olivia may be read in many ways, and surely will be now, seeing the film in 2019 not only reshapes our picture of film history but also charms us by its departure from current popular cinematic depictions of cults and sorcery. The etymology of “cult” ties it to cultivation, reverence, the labor of care — all of which swirl around any scene of education. “Occult” has roots in keeping things secret and hidden. It is the perfect form for queer storytelling, and what better way to do that than to keep the occult-ness of it all itself hidden, subtextual? Audry’s Olivia is witchcraft as filmmaking.


Note: Stills from Olivia (courtesy Icarus Films and Distrib Films US).


Kyle Stevens is the author of Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism (Oxford University Press, 2015) and co-editor of the two-volume collection Close-Up: Great Cinematic Performances (Edinburgh University Press, 2018). He is also editor-in-chief of New Review of Film and Television Studies.

LARB Contributor

Kyle Stevens is the author of Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism (Oxford University Press, 2015) and co-editor of the two-volume collection Close-Up: Great Cinematic Performances (Edinburgh University Press, 2018). He is also editor-in-chief of New Review of Film and Television Studies.


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