TCM will feature films from 12 decades—and representing 44 countries—totaling 100 classic and current titles all created by women. Read more about this here!
The 1951 French film Olivia is all about adoration. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Dorothy Bussy, it follows the intertwining affections and longings between students Olivia and Laura and teachers Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara. Their entire social system centers on a battle of loyalties between Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara, who are romantically entwined.
Filmmaker Jacqueline Audry may have found catharsis in the all-women boarding school setting. She had been a filmmaker during the Nazi occupation of France when opportunities for women in film were even more limited (see Evelyn Ehrlich’s Cinema of Paradox for more detail on the French film industry in this period). In the private boarding school’s all-girls setting, the storyteller could explore a world where everything—from love to loss—belonged to women.
The setting of a girls’ boarding school was a common inspiration for women storytellers in early cinema. In 1931, German filmmaker Leontine Sagan’s Madchen in Uniform explored the distinctive social and emotional norms that developed in the boarding school setting as a women’s world. Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour, later adapted in a film starring Audrey Hepburn, highlighted the darker instincts of young students trying to find power in a world where they are powerless.
In all of these films, characters blend loyalty, friendship, love, and longing, and sexual desire is rarely explicit. However, as fellow FF2 writer Katusha commented on Madchen in Uniform, lesbian passion could be surprisingly sensual in these films. Olivia’s title character is seen frequently shutting her eyes and sighing at a charged touch from Mlle Julie. Banned in the U.S. until 1961, American films showing anything implying “sexual perversion” were buried. French cinema was freer to suggest sexual desire.
It strikes me that early portrayals of lesbians in film tend to focus on interpersonal drama. 1968 French-Italian film The Does hinges on the manipulative and vengeful push-and-pull between jealous heroines. Olivia’s plot, however, is driven by insecurities and conflicting loyalties. Based on women’s social demands, these plots set up a stereotype of women’s relationships as petty and childish. More recent portrayals of lesbians in film have moved away from interpersonal drama but not from lurid stereotypes: they tend to use the trope of the older, experienced, and out gay woman seducing and converting the younger straight girl.
Still, early portrayals of lesbian love (and the advent of women-dominated casts) are rare, and it’s essential to explore those that are available. Olivia is a particularly beautiful watch. Within lavish costumes, bedrooms, and ballrooms, the story is surprisingly intimate.
Olivia will screen as part of TCM’s Women Make Film festival at midnight on Tuesday, September 1. It’s a romantic, surreal screening time to match a romantic, surreal movie.
© Amelie Lasker (9/1/20) FF2 Media
Photos: Marie-Claire Olivia as “Olivia” and Edwige Feuillère as “Mlle Julie.”
Photo Credits: Roger Forster