In Olivia (1951, dir. Jacqueline Audry), we find our teenage heroine (Marie-Claire Olivia) in a French boarding school in the 1890s. The English Olivia, used to strict governesses and regimented school days, is welcomed with open arms by her classmates and enjoys new-found freedoms, such as being allowed to roam the grounds as she pleases and take library books up to her room, a room she has all to herself. She is also quickly engulfed by the romance of her school, perpetuated by students and staff alike. Mlle Julie (Edwige Feuillère) and Mlle Cara (Simone Simon), the two headmistresses, are at once partners and antagonists, occupied less with teaching than with charming their students, splitting the school into warring parties depending on which Mlle they are loyal to. Cara appears to be on the losing side.
Based on the novel by Dorothy Bussy (1949), Jacqueline Audry’s film was released at a symbolic turning point between the historical and the contemporary: the 1950s. Equidistant from the Edwardians and the Millennials, this decade saw the emergence of the teenager and the Cold War, when modern culture, propelled by two world wars, began to embrace technology and hurtled away from the romantic pastoral visions depicted in Olivia.
Olivia first joins Camp Cara, attending to her headmistress in her private rooms, delighting in the tasks of nursing this glamorous woman who is mostly prevented, apparently by ill health, from leaving her chaise longue. Romance transcends the school: students are taught with passion, even at meals they are encouraged to savour and refine their tastes. Truly this is an enviable education, filled with various entertainments: trips to Paris, a costumed ball at Christmas, poetry recitation in front of Mlle Julie’s fire. Here, the fatal combination of Andromaque and Julie’s enchanting performance secure Olivia’s devotion to her, and a switching of allegiances.
Olivia bears the influence of Mädchen in Uniform (1931). Leontine Sagan’s harsher film presents a similar story of love between student and teacher amidst the poverty, depression, and increasing militarisation of interwar Germany. One student remarks: “Some girls’ parents aren’t well off any more,” following a scene where the formidable headmistress Fräulein von Nordeck (Emilia Unda) declares “Through discipline and hunger, hunger and discipline, we shall be great again. Or not at all.”
Despite the difference in circumstances, Mädchen, like Olivia, upholds a proud belief in love between women, and rejects its othering or fetishisation by a patriarchal system. When it is suggested to Mädchen’s Manuela (Hertha Thiele) that she ought to cure herself of her feelings towards a teacher, she replies: “Cured? Of what?” She has no understanding that her desires for another woman could be thought of as wrong. That the same-sex attractions of these girls – whether platonic, romantic, or a burning crush – are taken seriously by both films, is a mark of respect.
Audry’s film was released around the same time that Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain would have enrolled in a convent school in County Monaghan, where she too experienced deep emotions, both for older girls and the nuns who taught her. She documented these in her memoir, Are You Somebody? (1996), where she describes the “romantic system” at her school, a structure of adoration marked by swooning faints and gift giving so alike to the culture at Mlle Julie’s school. O’Faolain impresses upon her reader that “The emotions we felt as schoolgirls were volatile and exaggerated and they have always been despised by the world. But they were not trivial.” Her account shows how these intimate domestic histories recorded by women, fictional or not, are so valuable for taking both queer and women’s spaces out of the shaming, fetishising hands of men:
“Those words and concepts that will be lost for ever when women my age die, because no one values them enough to record them. […] They were not a mere substitute for what we would have been doing with boys if we weren’t in boarding-school, which is what the patriarchy has always arrogantly presumed.”
Olivia also refuses the trivialisation of same-sex attraction, documenting and revelling in a wealth of emotions, embracing both the euphoric and the tragic. In the final act, tragedy comes in full force, when Mlle Cara commits suicide and, in her devastation, Julie declares that she will leave the school. In her final meeting with the devoted Olivia, Julie cannot cope with the weight of emotion she has inspired, in the girl or in Cara: she rejects Olivia, who leaves in tears. Yet, although the warring affections of the headmistresses have sparked disaster as well as an end to the good old days with the school now coming under control of the severe Frau Riesener, the final note of the film rejects shame, just as O’Faolain did.
As Olivia is being driven from the school, Victoire (Yvonne de Bray), the frank-speaking cook, declares that “later, Olivia, well, in a while, you’ll see you’ll remember us with fondness. All of us.” Her words are a testament to the rejection of shame and to embracing love in all its forms, even when it results in tragedy, and they echo in O’Faolain’s anxieties about the past: “It does frighten me that I remember the bad times rather than the good ones.”