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Olivia, an English teenager, arrives at a finishing school in France. The majority of the pupils in the school are divided into two camps: those that are devoted to the headmistress, Mlle Julie and those who follow Mlle Cara, an emotionally manipulative invalid who is obsessed with Mlle Julie.
Jacqueline Audry is a special case in French cinema:today ,her work is either disdained or ignored.Nevertheless she was ,along Ida Lupino,and long before Agnès Varda ,the only woman director of the era ;and like her American peer ,she often focused on female psychology .From her personal version of child book by Comtesse De Ségur 's "Les Malheurs De Sophie" (Feuillère hints at it when she says it's the first book she gave to Olivia ;and a private joke too ,since it's Audry's first movie) to Sartre' s "Huis Clos" to Victor Limur's "La Garçonne ".
Girls school was a subject Audry had to broach ;except for two brief scenes ,it does not feature any male actors ;like in Leontine Sagan's "Madchen In Uniform" ,remade by Radvanyi in 1960 with Romy Schneider and Lili Palmer ,it's a movie which depicts lesbian friendship ;it was already a subplot in "club De Femmes" (1936) and ,two years after"Olivia" ,in "Dortoir Des Grandes " (1953) another subplot concerns a maths teacher in love with a beautiful pupil.
But in France ,only Jacqueline Audry dared to make an entire movie with the ambiguous shady relationship between women and girls ;along "La Garçonne" which told us the story of a woman who intended to live like a man in La Belle Epoque and "Huis Clos" ,which featured a lesbian character ,played by glorious Arletty,"Olivia " might be the director's apex.At a time when female directors make more and more their presence felt on the contemporary French scene ,isn't it about time to restore to favor the unsung Jacqueline Audry .
"Olivia" features two teachers ,Mademoiselle Julie (imperial Edwige Feuillère) and Mademoiselle Cara (Simone Simon ,known as the female lead in Renoir's masterpiece " La Bete Humaine" ,but who was also the unforgettable heroine of Tourneur's "cat people " ,and thus ,a perfect choice for his hypochondriac suicidal character).Both vie with each other for their pupils' love ,and the elegant aristocratic fascinating Juliette has the upper hand ;her whining anorexic colleague is no match for her and she sees desperately her favorites " leave her" for her brilliant enemy :although they pretend to be friends,their hate lies dormant,and tragedy is waiting around the corner.
Audry and her screenwriter/husband Pierre Laroche uses French literature as never before,and never since ..The extracts structure the story and inspire its vital romanticism :
Racine's Andromaque who desperately wants to save her son Astyanax is Juliette's burning love for the children she never had, thus her favorite pupils.
Lamartine's "Le lac"( "O Temps Suspends Ton Vol" (=time,stand still))is the happy time of the Juliette /Olivia relationship ,which culminates in the extraordinary scene of the Christmas fete.
Racine's "Berenice" is a transparent metaphor for the impending parting ;Hugo's "Paroles Sur LA Dune" is downright morbid with its"death,black bolt"
This is a place where boys never tread :maths are despised (and so is the teacher ,who makes up for it with what we could call binge- eating syndrome)and never taken seriously :a hundred years after,it would become THE subject ,even for girls,but at the time it was boys' business.
Boys are never mentioned : one of the girls gets a bad mark for her essay on Corneille 's "Le Cid" just because too much of her work was given over to Rodrigue's character!Off-topic!(or men are considered rivals in Juliette's mind).In the sensational Christmas fancy dress ball scene,which climaxes the movie, Juliette is like a queen on her throne,and Cara is nothing but an embittered lady-in-waiting.Around them ,girls dance together ,sometimes dressed up as men in an extremely sensual atmosphere.
A very permissive atmosphere in this luxury school ,where the "Crème De La Crème " ,as Miss Jean Brodie would say,reads lit classics all day long but every rose has its thorn and these students(and their teachers) cut themselves off from the real world .
The office Catholique Du Cinema forbade the movie to their flock (although they did not do the same for "Madchen In uniform" ,perhaps because the latter took place in Germany!)
Who will give Jacqueline Audry the place she deserves in the French cinema?
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