A bona fide rediscovery, feminist director Jacqueline Audry’s beautifully-made production OLIVIA, comes to stunning (and startling) Blu-Ray from the progressive folks at Icarus Films.
On the fade-in surface, the movie is about a posh boarding school for young ladies in the late 19th century. But there are as many secrets as there are students, perhaps more. The picturesque country-set institution is run by partners Miss Julie and Miss Cara. They are more than mere business associates. Or, at least, they were. Miss Julie is the classically alluring and charming, comely matriarch of the school; Miss Cara, the slightly younger, but more sensual cofounder. Once great friends and lovers, the pair’s ferocious attraction toward one another has cooled to an almost icy animosity. Julie tells her students that Cara’s issues are in her mind. And so they are. Cara has psychologically invented diseases that keep her impaired, and (mostly) confined to her section of the building; she is jealously guarded by the German instructor, Frau Riesener (Lesly Meynard), essentially the Mrs. Danvers character (and hopelessly enamored of Cara herself).
Were this but the entire narrative of OLIVIA, viewers would have enough to be intrigued by. Ah, but this is merely the appetizer. The main course/major schism in the two strong women’s friendships is their emotional and sexual tug-of-war with the schools most attractive, intelligent, impressionable and vulnerable students (indeed the women are divided into two camps, Julirists and Cararists).
Key to this is the arrival of the title character, a gorgeous teenager, hand-picked years earlier by Miss Julie. Like a vampire, scouring for prey, Julie attached herself to an unconventional English family, headed by a single mom with a beauteous young daughter. Julie spent her time well, basically grooming the pre-teen for eventual “induction” into the school.
Immediately, Olivia is the latest human delicacy, craved by both Cara and Julie. But the former loses out, as Olivia has been hopelessly infatuated with the older woman since they first met.
As Cara’s ailments move from psychological to physical, events go from dark to pitch black for a gasp-worthy revelation of a climax.
Loaded with subliminal erotic imagery and brutally written scenes (at a holiday party, a slightly tipsy Julie taunts Olivia with the ultimate seduction (“I will come to you tonight and buy you candy”). Olivia is practically orgasmic and dutifully waits for her desirous deflowering. But Julie never shows, crisply telling the already-severely damaged young woman the following morning that she ultimately did her a favor.
The production of OLIVIA is virtually flawless, from the immaculate period art and set design (Jean d’Eaubonne) to the script, and to the casting. With men only rarely acting as background extras (outside of the school), and scant few at that, OLIVIA is a “woman’s picture” in every sense of the word.
The two leads are magnificent, impressive as educators and despicable as predators. Miss Julie is portrayed by the superb actress Edwige Feuillere, offering up dignity with lust. And the great Simone Simon (best known here as the star of Jacques Tourneur’s and Val Lewton’s Cat People) delivers perhaps her finest screen performance, tempering pathos with simmering carnality. Trust me, Cara is far more frightening than shape-shifting Irena. And as the easily corrupted innocent, Marie-Claire Olivia excels in the title role.
OLIVIA was spectacularly photographed in black-and-white by Christian Matras, with a lovely score by Pierre Sancan. Audry’s direction is absolutely top-drawer, emotionally running the gamut from incredibly pastoral to intensely passionate (I must check out more of her work). The suspenseful script by Audry’s sister Colette and husband Pierre Laroche (from a novel by Dorothy Bussy) is perfect as well. Excellent thespian support is also on-view via the presence of Yvonne de Bray, Suzanne Dehelly, Marina de Berg, Rina Rhety, Tania Soucault, Sophie Mallet, Helene Remy, Chaerine Alba and Christine Carere.
Oh, and, did I mention this?: OLIVIA was made in 1950 (presented, not suprisingly, on limited release in the States, and not seen in America until 1954; nevertheless, along with Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, the pic forever makes the 1950-1951 international movie season a banner period for queer cinema).
The Icarus Films Blu-Ray of OLIVIA is a terrific restoration, with excellent 35MM visuals accompanying the faux (refurbished from mono) stereo audio (in French w/English subtitles). Extras include a 1957 interview with director Audry and the trailer.
Whether you consider OLIVIA a fascinating, wayyyy advanced morality play, a twisted love story, or, a jaw-dropping psychological horror tale, it’s certainly a must-see (and must-own) picture to tempt audiences who think they’ve seen it all.
OLIVIA. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HA MA. Icarus Films. CAT # ICARUSOLIVIA. SRP: $34.98.