A luminous tale about lesbian desire

Directed by Jacqueline Audry — and adapted from Dorothy Bussy’s semi-autobiographical novel by Audry’s husband, Pierre Laroche, and her sister Colette Audry — “Olivia,” set mainly at a boarding school for young girls, brims with lesbian desire.

On Sept. 28, at 7 p.m., the Lightbox Film Center presents a 4K restoration of the tender 1951 French film “Olivia.”

When the film starts, Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) is being escorted to the school by Victoire (Yvonne de Brey), the cook, via horse and carriage. The English teenager is introduced to other students, such as the vain Cécile (Nadine Olivier), and members of the staff, including the math teacher, Miss Dubois (Suzanne Dehelly). Olivia also meets the two women who co-run the school: Miss Julie (Edwige Feuillère), the headmistress, and Miss Cara (Simone Simon), who suffers from ill health. It soon becomes clear that the female pupils align themselves as either Team Julie or Team Cara. Laura (Elly Overzier), who is away from the school when Olivia arrives, is said to be a favorite of Miss Julie’s, and Olivia seems poised to become Laura’s replacement.

“Olivia” slowly allows this plot — about who will win the title character’s affections — to unfold. In one terrific scene, Olivia visits Miss Cara one evening and comforts the teacher who suffers from a migraine. When Miss Cara asks Olivia to cover her with a shawl that had dropped to the floor, it seems like a calculated move for attention and affection. Despite her fragile health, Miss Cara can shoot daggers with her eyes, especially when Laura is mentioned.

In contrast, Olivia’s relationship with Miss Julie is warm and inviting. The pupil confides in her headmistress about feeling like an outcast at her previous school, likely prompting the teacher’s kindness. Miss Julie recognizes that Olivia is smart — she proves her knowledge during a reading session of Jean Racine’s “Andromaque”— and woos the comely young pupil with a trip to Paris. On the train back to school, Miss Julia and Olivia touch hands. This brief, electric moment overwhelms Olivia. She later confesses that her feelings for Miss Julie cause her heart to beat faster and her throat to close up when she wants to speak.

“Olivia” becomes a bit melodramatic as the teenager becomes more obsessed with Miss Julie, but the film never feels strained. When Laura returns to the school, she and Olivia become friends, not rivals — a nice development — and Laura helps Olivia process her same-sex desire. She is delighted when Miss Julie tucks her into bed one night and gives her a chaste kiss. But Olivia also believes their relationship is deeper than it actually is.

Audry handles these romantic moments delicately as the film builds to its denouement. At the school’s Christmas ball, where the girls dance in same-sex pairs, Miss Julie compliments Cécile on her dress and kisses her neck. It is a sign that Olivia wants to ignore, but she becomes angrier when Miss Julie breaks her promise to visit that night.

The film takes on a serious tone when a shift in the school’s power is announced and a death occurs, followed by an inquest. “Olivia” uses these dramatic episodes to reflect on its protagonist’s conflicted emotions. Audry’s film uses subtlety to deliver its message about love and heartbreak.

As Miss Julie, Edwige Feuillère’s performance is precise and captivating; it’s easy to see why Olivia is attracted to this tough and beautiful woman. Miss Julie’s praise of Olivia certainly seems flirtatious. Likewise, Marie-Claire Olivia makes the young teenager’s infatuation seem believable; even when she cries in despair, she’s never histrionic.

In support, Simone Simon is lovely as Miss Cara, though more interactions with Olivia would have emphasized the teacher’s rivalry with Miss Julie. The handful of exchanges between Victoire and Miss Dubois are amusing. (One could suggest that Victoire and Miss Dubois are a lesbian couple given how they behave). It’s appreciated that almost no men are in this film — and most of those who do appear to remain silent.

Technically, “Olivia” is beautifully made, shot in luminous black and white and lit to convey the tone of each scene’s action. Audry effectively highlights the boarding house’s oval-shaped windows and mirrors to convey reflective moments, and the central staircase is well utilized for dramatic moments. The costumes are appealing as well — especially in the Christmas ball scene.

“Olivia” has been shown rarely in the last seven decades. Don’t miss the opportunity to see this classic on the big screen.

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