Dec 5, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: The Restoration of A Gem, Jacqueline Audry's Olivia (1950) with Simone Simon

Olivia (1950) (also known as The Pit of Loneliness) is a treasure that came out of nowhere for me. Set in a nineteenth-century French boarding school, much like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), it reveals a battleground in the most elegant of settings. A landmark in queer cinema and a triumph for Jacqueline Audry as a rare female director at the time, it is also simply an engaging and beautifully crafted film. I recently had the opportunity to watch a new release of the film on DVD from Icarus Films.

As the titular heroine, Marie-Claire Olivia plays an English schoolgirl who is transferred to a French boarding school in the hopes it will be a happier place for her than the institute she previously attended in her homeland. At first, she is delighted with her new surroundings. She revels in the kindness of her fellow students and the relative freedom of more relaxed rules.

However, she is soon overcome by the continual battle between headmistresses Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillere) and Miss Cara (Simone Simon) for the affections of the students and her own passionate crush on Julie. Miss Cara is sickly, or so she claims, and self-pitying, coaxing the students to pamper her and bristling when she doesn’t rule their hearts. Miss Julie is more self-assured when it comes to winning the affections of the students, though she is no more confident or content with herself as she cruelly plays with their affections, drawing them in only to push them away when her desires conflict with propriety.

Both the head mistresses and the students are frank in the sensuality of their affections. Their intimacy as they clutch hands, sit closely in conversation, or cozily feed each other pralines is acceptable by the standards of their world. That closeness is meant to be temporary as they prepare themselves to be the wives of important men. When Olivia struggles to keep that perspective, Julie fails to set her straight, perhaps because she doesn’t want that conventional life for herself. As a result, their tense relationship further feeds the flames of competition between Julie and Cara.

The students live in a lush world of luxury, where they are well fed, swathed in fluttering lace, and occupied daily with light gossip about each other and, most of all, their two head mistresses. Not far beneath this façade of beauty and gentility there is the constant pressure of the conflict between Miss Cara and Miss Julie. In their fight for the girl’s affections, they end up punishing these innocents for their own dissatisfaction and repressed desires. The teachers and house staff observe this drama with a knowing eye, declining to step in. They are aware of their place and possibly not terribly concerned about their wealthy charges.

Jacqueline Audry was the first female director to distinguish herself to a wide audience in the post-World War II era. With Gigi (1949), she made her name by being the first to adapt Colette’s work to the screen, a task which the author had previously believed impossible, though she was delighted to be wrong. With that film she also made a star of Danièle Delorme, who played the title role.

Audry made Olivia early in her twenty year directing career, but she already possessed a sophisticated visual style. She situates her camera so that the audience always has a direct path to the feelings of her actresses. The dialogue is frank, but it is the silent emotions that Audry captures which reveal the instability of the residents of this candy-coated world.

Bonus features on the disc include 1950 and 2019 trailers for the films and a fascinating 1957 interview with Audry conducted by actor Jean Danet, whom she directed in La Garçonne (1957).

Many thanks to Icarus Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

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