Olivia follows a British student transferred to a French finishing school. The school’s owners are a lesbian couple on the rocks. They compete for their student’s affection. The first half is a subversive treat full of intrigue, humor and bad behavior. Then the teachers cross a line and are punished. The status quo is restored. I suspect the filmmakers’ hearts weren’t in the scolding. They provide their queer ensemble more joy than most media of this era.
Let’s take a look in this spoiler filled recap. The film merits a trigger warning for scenes of sexual harassment and self harm.
Act One: Meet the Faculty
Scene One: French Boarding School
OLIVIA (A British teen): This place is nicer than my old school. Everyone’s ever so friendly.
GOSSIPS (A mix of students and staff): Maybe. But you’ll have to pick a side.
MLLE. CARA (Childish): Welcome. I’d serve you tea but my nerves! My migraine! Fetch my pills!
MLLE. JULIA (Regal): Join me by the fireplace. I’ll read you Greek poetry.
GOSSIPS: So? Are you Team Cara? Or Team Julia?
OLIVIA: Cara makes me feel useful. Julia makes me afraid. (Stares at her reflection and smiles.)
Scene Two: Dining Hall
MLLE. JULIA: Please eat something.
MLLE. CARA: I can’t! I’m not well!
MLLE. JULIA: Then stroll with me by the lake.
MLLE. BODYGUARD: Ms. Cara’s not well enough to stroll.
OLIVIA: Is Cara sick?
GOSSIPS: Only when she wants attention. Which is always.
Act Two: Unrequited Love
Scene Three: An Ex
MLLE. JULIA: Meet Laura, the minister’s daughter. She was my protégé before you.
OLIVIA: Why did you leave school? Were you in love with Julia?
LAURA: No. Be careful.
GOSSIPS: Julia and Cara fought over Laura. They’ll do the same to you.
Scene Four: Julia’s Office
MLLE. JULIA: Your writing is weak. You need to work harder.
OLIVIA: I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!
MLLE. JULIA: Curse my irresistible charms.
Scene Five: Christmas Ball
(The girls dance together. Julia dances with Cara.)
MLLE. JULIA: See Cara, how easy it is to be happy?
MLLE. CARA: For children maybe.
MLLE. JULIA: Why Cecile, you look lovely in that gown.
(Mlle. Julia kisses Cecile, a student, on the neck. Olivia fumes.)
MLLE. JULIA: Don’t be jealous Olivia. Tonight, I’ll visit your room.
(Olivia waits up all night. Julia does not come.)
Act Three: Familiar Tropes
Scene Six: Moralizing
MLLE. JULIA: It was wrong to proposition my students. I’m taking a job in Canada.
MLLE. CARA: You’ll still be everyone’s favorite. You’ve made me the villain at this school. Servants, fetch me my pills! (Dies.)
GOSSIPS: Cara has overdosed! Was it an accident or suicide?
OLIVIA: Will Julia stay now?
MLLE. BODYGUARD: No. Cara left the school to me in her will.
MLLE. JULIA: I’m sorry Olivia. You’re like me. You’ve got a rough road ahead. (Leaves.)
OLIVIA: Alas. My heart is broken.
GOSSIPS: There, there. They weren’t the only lesbians in this school.
Truth in Fiction
“It has been a struggle all my life – but I have always been victorious – I was proud of my victory.” And then her voice changed, broke, deepened, softened, became a murmur: “I wonder now whether defeat wouldn’t have been better for us all.”Mlle. Julia in Olivia. 1949 novel by Dorothy Bussy
It’s good that we have our happy stories today, but it’s also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce.Rhea Rollmann, Pop Matters
“I read Olivia many, many times, bought it for many of my friends, and consider it the inspiration for Call Me by Your Name .”André Aciman, Author
Dorothy Bussy’s semi-autobiographical novel has been called a masterpiece. The film gets overshadowed by discussions of 1931’s similar film Mädchen in Uniform. While Mädchen focused on the students Olivia gives the best material to the teachers. Julia (Edwige Feuillere) and Cara (Simone Simon) are compelling characters with a messy shared history. The gossips, led by Yvonne de Bray and Suzanne Dehelly, act as Greek chorus and provide the bulk of the film’s humor. Poor Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) is a drip by comparison. Her crush reduces her to a wide eyed simpleton with little agency. Despite that the film holds up. It’s worth a watch.