The current representation craze — ethnic and gender groups crying to see themselves depicted in media — brings us this week’s release of Olivia at New York’s The Quad. The 1951 French film fits all the wokeness criteria. It was directed by a woman, Jacqueline Audry, and tells the story of British teen Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) enrolled at a French finishing school for girls where her outsider’s experience raises such topical issues as immigration, feminism, and lesbian sexual attraction.
Olivia could be called “intersectional,” but that trendy term coarsens the film’s subtlety. Director Audry and her sister, screenwriter Colette Audry (the legendary French writer adapting Dorothy Bussey’s novel), made Olivia as artists, not activists. And the cast of exquisitely nuanced actresses — Edwige Feuillère as headmistress Mlle. Julie, Simone Simon as Mlle. Clara, Yvonne de Bray as the wise cook Victoire, and Lesly Meynard as strict Frau Reisener — exercised imaginative understatement.
Compared with the cast of last year’s repellent Suspiria, which emphasized what can only be called dykeyness (to the point that the actresses acted openly deviant, ravenous, and ghoulish) Olivia’s characterizations are firstly humane. Their sexuality is not obvious, except, perhaps, to especially perceptive adult viewers of the mid-20th-century art-film audience who could appreciate young Olivia’s fascination with Mlle. Julie and Mlle. Cara as a matter of affinity not simply lust. These discreet boarding-school personalities are vivid, richer than wild-eyed social standard-bearers.
Although Olivia is set in the 19th century, it conveyed 1950s modesty. It may not be obvious enough to become a hit during the #MeToo era but Jacqueline and Colette Audry, who might be looked back upon as intersectional pioneers, understood the power of subtlety. They elevated this minority tale to mainstream status without the abrasive political coercion that marks the self-righteousness of contemporary PC filmmakers.
Satisfying the representation movement is an identity-politics imperative that teaches a narrow appreciation of Audry’s distinction as a pioneering female filmmaker. As an artist of her times, Audry presented human desire and moral response in a way that doesn’t precisely fit the contemporary fashion of crusader-filmmakers pushing an agenda (as Ava DuVernay does on race topics).
Audry directed an even better film than Olivia in Gigi (1949), which Vincente Minnelli remade nine years later as a classic MGM musical. Gigi’s heterosexual story of a young girl (Leslie Caron) being trained as a courtesan reflected the sexual politics of a by-gone era, resulting in the most visually resplendent of all Hollywood musicals. (Critic John Demetry described its spectacle as “the Lawrence of Arabia of musicals.”)
No Millennial female film director has matched Gigi’s portrayal of female awareness, (significantly, from a 1944 short story by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, better known as simply Colette). In Minnelli’s proto-feminist telling, Gigi is advised: “Marriage is not forbidden to us, but instead of getting married at once, it sometimes happens we get married at last.” This consciousness about social convention underlies both versions of Gigi — as well as Olivia. They all evince refinement, not repression.
Note the unsurpassed sophistication of Feuillère’s elegant presence, her inspirational teaching of Racine, Corneille, and Watteau that sparks her infatuated pupils and Simon’s kittenish sensuality, which compels yet disturbs them. What makes Audry’s Gigi and Olivia of contemporary interest is their subtle humanity. She bested today’s fashionable, fascistic ideas of gender and social identity.
Olivia’s re-release indicts the confusion of the representation movement in which untutored youth proclaim that they “never see people who look like me.” The desire to be seen, rather than the desire to be more fully human is Audry’s real subject and is the lesson that eventually benefits Olivia. She is educated — led out — from “the Pit of Loneliness,” as the film was titled in the U.S. during its initial release (to evoke Radclyffe Hall’s famous lesbian tome The Well of Loneliness). Naïve Olivia leaves the school heartbroken, but she learns the difference that separates compassion from narcissism. Her humanity is a matter of persistence, not resistance.