Doug’s Cinematic Firsties is a recurring series wherein Douglas Laman (A.K.A. NerdInTheBasement) will review a well-known classic motion picture that he’s never seen before.
Going to a new school, that’s always a daunting experience. That’s been especially true for Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia), the star of the 1954 Jacqueline Audry film Olivia. She just arrived at a finishing school in France, one run in a more open-minded way than the restrictive educational facilities she’s previously attended. The headmistress of this school is Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillere), who also serves as the object of fascination of an invalid woman named Cara (Simone Simon). As Olivia goes on, Miss Julie and Olivia become closer. In fact, they become quite close. Apparently, this isn’t the first time Miss Julie has developed a close bond with a student. Is Olivia just the newest object of brief fascination for Miss Julie or is there something deeper bonding the two together?
Written by Pierre Laroche, Olivia didn’t quite captivate me like I had hoped it would. It proves interesting in a surface-level kind of way but Laroche’s writing doesn’t get close enough to the individual players of the story to allow us to get to know them. Cara, for example, is never fleshed out beyond being an example of the disabled hermit stock character that was already tired in 1954. Olivia is bold to so explicitly tackle femme queerness in a mid-20th century movie. Unfortunately, the rest of the production relies a touch too heavily on subdued and familiar storytelling details, including a downbeat tragic ending for its central queer characters, that are hard to get invested in.
Still, though it doesn’t grab your soul, Olivia does manage to intrigue as an example of overt queerness in mid-20th century cinema. It’s especially interesting how Olivia is quite upfront about the fact that it’s dabbling in queer territory. Rather than beating around the bush regarding Olivia and Miss Julie’s orientation, Olivia proceeds to wholly embrace the notion that women are attracted to each other. The sense of personal betrayal between Olivia, Miss Julie, and others are what drives the drama here, not the looming question of whether or not these characters are actually gay. By making the sexuality of its characters so assured, Olivia is able to get to its melodrama quickly and efficiently.
Meanwhile, the best parts of Jacqueline Audrey’s direction come from its most stylized moments. Though much of the movie is rooted directly in reality, Audrey engages in a number of memorable deviations into more visually extravagant territory. A key example of this comes in one of the final scenes of Olivia, which features Olivia and Miss Julie engaging in a conversation in the latter character’s bedroom. Here, Audrey frames the domicile of Miss Julie in a manner that emphasizes large empty spaces and evocative shadows. It’s an immensely evocative shot that renders Julie’s room as daunting as the conversation Julie and Olivia are exchanging.
Visual cues like that are the parts that stick in my mind most regarding Olivia. Between that and the explicit queerness of its lead characters, Olivia has some truly inspired creative details. I wish more of Laroche’s screenplay had gone in similarly imaginative directions or at least made the characters more engrossing. Still, Olivia does manage to work as both a demonstration of Audrey’s talents as a filmmaker and as a critical historical artifact. Queer storytelling has been imprinted on cinema since its very creation. Olivia serves as another example of how that type of storytelling reverberates through all eras of cinema.