‘Olivia’ Explores Love and Tragedy in a French Finishing School

Jacqueline Audry’s film unfolds in an almost exclusively female world, as suffocating as it is liberating.

A scene from “Olivia,” a film based on Dorothy Bussy’s novel of the same name.
Credit...Icarus Films and Distrib Films

Two head teachers, who may or may not have been lovers, compete for the allegiance of their well-bred, high-spirited students in a French finishing school. The stakes are raised and the balance of power is shifted with the appearance of an English girl, Olivia, whose mad crush on one teacher is nearly reciprocated.

Revived in a new digital restoration, “Olivia,” which was released in France in 1951 and the United States three years later, is a fascinating study of love and repression by Jacqueline Audry (1908-1977), a French director who has long been hiding in plain sight.

Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillère) is remote and graciously domineering. Even more manipulative is her longtime associate, the temperamental and flirtatious Miss Cara (Simone Simon, whose brief Hollywood career included an indelible performance as the possessed woman of the original “Cat People”). The school is both an idyllic retreat and a hot house of petty jealousies — divided, so Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) is told, between “Julistes” and “Caristas.” She finds herself in the middle.

A posh, literate costume drama, “Olivia” exemplifies the post-World War II “cinema of quality” that would be anathema to the firebrands of the French New Wave. Audry’s fluid camera work, particularly evident in her use of the school’s grand staircase to mark a shifting hierarchy of students and teachers, suggests the influence of Max Ophüls, for whom she worked as an assistant.

Like Ophüls, Audry could be described as a “woman’s director,” a term for a director who is particularly sensitive to directing actresses, especially in melodramas. “Olivia” unfolds in an almost exclusively female world, as suffocating as it is liberating. Audry, whose sister and sometime screenwriter Colette Audry was a friend of Simone de Beauvoir, might also be termed a feminist. The men who show up late in “Olivia” are transparent and vaguely ridiculous, agents of patriarchal order.

Based on a novel by Dorothy Bussy, “Olivia” was released in the United States as “Pit of Loneliness,” thus creating an association with the once notorious novel of lesbian passion “Well of Loneliness.” Noting that the movie “does tend to take on a faintly purplish hue because of the secret affections that pass among the teachers and the girls,” the New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther assured readers in 1954 that “there is nothing indecorous or offensive in the picture as it is played.” It is that discretion, exercised in a world of corseted women (with mature actresses playing adolescent schoolgirls), that gives the movie its frisson.

Audry’s 13 features, most of which had female protagonists and some of which were censored, include three adaptations from the writer Colette and the 1954 film version of Sartre’s “No Exit.” The most intriguing is “Le secret du Chevalier d’Éon” (1959), a biopic of the French soldier and diplomat who, after appearing publicly as a man for many years, subsequently identified as a woman. (Audry’s film instead portrays the chevalier as a woman masquerading as a man.)

Andrew Sarris’s pioneering history “The American Cinema” included a section devoted to those directors he considered “Subjects for Further Research.” Audry, France’s most active female filmmaker between Germaine Dulac, who made her last film in 1935, and Agnès Varda, who made her first in 1954, is that and more.


Opening Aug. 16 at the Quad, 34 West 13th Street, Manhattan; 212-255-2243,

Rewind is an occasional column covering revived, restored and rediscovered movies playing in New York’s repertory theaters.