Dense with the swoonworthy perfume of desire both youthful and seasoned, the 1951 French film “Olivia” is an incandescent period drama ripe for rediscovery. A seminal work of female-directed and queer cinema by Jacqueline Audry — the only Frenchwoman making movies in her male-dominated time — it brings to rich emotional life the swirl of influence and passion inside an all-girls boarding school buzzing with sentimental education around its grand central staircase.
What poised, literate Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) discovers upon arriving at her new countryside home of instruction is an openly contested headmistress battle for hearts and minds between elegant, popular Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillère) and migraine-suffering shut-in Miss Cara (Simone Simon, from “Cat People”). The women’s charges readily fall into factions — and for many the turf war is an amusing sideshow — but when Olivia falls deeply for Miss Julie’s pointed charms, a thorny drama emerges of forbidden love curled inside a forbidding misuse of power.
Audry’s silky, dreamlike balancing act, adapted from a novel by her sister Colette Audry, is as Gallic as they come, honoring the thrill of emergent sensuality while weaving in the complexities of attraction hidden from society, and consequential because of it. Somehow both coded and overt, tactile without telling all, “Olivia” is an exquisitely diaphanous, nonjudgmental coming-of-age tale that contrasts its adolescent flush with something equally compelling in Feuillère’s magnetic portrait of an accomplished woman’s well-tended closet: a lace-strewn, candlelit cage as much defined by sad manipulation as fleeting intimacies.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles