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


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.

Olivia

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


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


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