Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Jacqueline Audry's 69-year-old film, OLIVIA, gets a restored, welcome theatrical re-release

Yes, it's set in an all-girls school in the late 1800s and, yes, it's replete with lesbian undertones, overtones, and other tones, but if you're at all imagining that the newly restored and about-to-be re-released to theaters French film, OLIVIA, is at all similar to Germany's entry into the lesbian-girls-school sweepstakes, Mädchen in Uniform, guess again. These two movies are as different as, well, France and Germany.

As directed by the not-at-all-well-known on these shores filmmaker, Jacqueline Audry, shown below, with a screenplay by the director's sister, Colette Audry, and Pierre Laroche (from the novel by Dorothy Bussy), the movie manages to be both subtle and over-the-top.

As you might expect, this is a bizarre combination, but it's is also what keeps the film somehow on track. The subtlety can be found in both the performances and in the refusal to turn the feelings of love -- from adults/teachers toward students and vice versa -- into anything evil or wrong.

Granted the movie must adhere to the mores of the times -- both the decade of the film's setting, as well as the time the movie was actually made (those uptight 1950s) -- but it is still impressive how alternately buoyant and sad Olivia is.

In fact, the film sneaks up on you, as you discover that you care about almost all these characters a good deal more than you might have imagined as you began watching this rather outré tale and its decidedly "hothouse" environment.

The movie begins as a horse-drawn carriage wends its way toward the girl's school, its passengers the new student, Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia, above), and the school's talkative and amusing cook (the wonderful Yvonne de Bray, below).

Once at the school, we (and Olivia) quickly meet the movie's protagonist and antagonist -- or maybe they're both, in their way, protagonists. The filmmaker sisters don't draw their lines of demarcation all that definitively, so that we can understand and even somewhat sympathize with both characters.

One woman, the more-or-less headmistress, embodied with regal hauteur and enormous, barely buried warmth by the beauteous Edwige Feuillère (below), has bought this academy/finishing school in which she now teaches for the other woman, an

also beautiful but vain and self-centered nitwit, played by Simone Simon (below, right, and star of Jacques Tourneur's 1942 genre classic, Cat People), who seems clearly to have been/maybe still is the head mistress' lover. For their part, the students seem to almost immediately fall in love with one or the other of these two women. The character played by Ms Simon encourages -- nay, demands -- this, while the one essayed by Ms Feuillère clearly has too much class for that, though she certainly does not discourage the girls' attraction.

The young students are brought to life quite well by the actresses involved, and though Olivia may be be the title character here, she is certainly not the most interesting. As attractive and starry as are the two leading actresses, that most important character would have to be the school's cook, Victoire, played so well by Ms de Bray.

Victoire is the moral center of the movie and also provides much of its charm and intelligence. We hang on nearly every word she utters because this woman is so smart, down-to-earth, and appealing. The students (their teachers, too) may live for love and all its discontents, but it is Victoire who knows what's what.

As a filmmaker, Ms Audry turns this little hothouse school into quite the entrancing place, with a camera that immediately pulls us in and turns everything, even the amazing frou-frou throughout, into something elegant, detailed and just short of wonderland. (The school's Christmas pageant is probably the film's highlight in terms of set, costumes, music, migraines, dance, romance -- the works!)

In all, Olivia proves a rather remarkable discovery (or rediscovery) of a film about a love that may be forbidden but is here so constant and, well, commonplace that it indeed makes the world -- and certainly this movie -- go 'round. Re-released by Icarus Films and Distrib Films US, in French with English subtitles and running 96 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, August 16, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and in Los Angeles on August 30 at Laemmle's Royal. If you inhabit neither coast, the film will undoubtedly be released to DVD and VOD in the weeks or months to come.

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