A Lesbian Oasis? Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia

Scott Gunther, Wellesley College

The 1951 film Olivia, based on a 1949 novel with the same name by Dorothy Bussy, was remastered and re-released in 2018. The film, directed by Jacqueline Audry, takes place in a boarding school for bourgeois girls near Fontainebleau in the latter part of the nineteenth century and tells the story of Olivia, a new student from England. When Olivia arrives at the school, she discovers that there are two headmistresses, Mademoiselle Julie and Mademoiselle Cara, and that the girls all fall into one of two camps, each pledging loyalty to one of them. Olivia joins the group of girls in admiration of Julie and ends up falling passionately in love with her. Julie, in turn, struggles with her feelings for Olivia and tries to rein them in. At times though, she lets go and fuels what ultimately end up being false hopes for Olivia of the two of them being together. Theirs is not the only story of same-sex attraction. Mademoiselles Julie and Cara are themselves lovers, though they also openly welcome the romantic and erotic attention of the students. Indeed, within the walls of this school, romantic attractions among women are common and at times even expected.

Ultimately, Cara discovers the developing attraction between Olivia and Julie and, in a fit of jealousy, commits suicide. At the end of the film, Julie leaves the school for good and Olivia returns to England. Though it is not explicitly explained why Julie must leave, the concluding scenes suggest that for one reason or another, this anomalous bubble, a space in which same-sex attraction is openly expressed, has come to an end.

What is immediately apparent is that Olivia does not seem like a film from 1951; its frank, portrayal of same-sex attraction seems quite out of sync with the prevailing conservative and homophobic climate of the period. Although disapproving glances from some of the teachers, Cara’s suicide, and the headmistress’s departure at the end indicate that the film does not go so far as to endorse same-sex desire, the explicitness of the representations of romantic and sometimes erotic desire between women is surprising for the time period. How could a film like this possibly be made and projected in cinemas during a time when French censors were preventing other representations of same-sex desire from displaying themselves overtly? Journals aimed at a gay audience in the 1950s, such as Futur and Arcadie, felt the need to hide behind discreet identities that allowed them to get past the censors while still being recognizable as something of interest to their target audiences. These two journals used tactics such as presenting themselves as journals for cultured audiences interested in classical Greece (Arcadie) or for people worried about over-population (Futur).

So why was Olivia able to be so explicit about romantic desire among women? Presenting the narrative of the film as something that happened in the previous century may have helped by providing some historical distance. Setting the story in a universe where there were no men for the women to choose from may have helped as well by presenting sexual attraction between women not so much as signs of a full-fledged sexual identity but merely the result of the need to find a little physical affection when men are not an option. And finally, seeing a parallel universe where same-sex attraction between women is tolerated come to an end at the film’s conclusion, bringing sadness to many of its inhabitants, could assuage defenders of heteronormativity by showing that ultimately there was a return to a conservative moral order. I would argue, however, that the main reason the film avoided censorship in France was because it was about love between women rather than between men. [1]

There are several reasons why male homosexuality was much more of a preoccupation for people in postwar France than female homosexuality was.

While there certainly was an awareness that women could be attracted to one another, it was of little concern to guardians of the moral order in France of the 1950s. This was largely due to stereotypes about the nature of female homosexuality, including the idea that same-sex attraction between women was just a stage or experienced less intensely than male homosexuality. These stereotypes circulated not just in mainstream society but also among homosexual groups. In 1952, the journal Futur, for example, opined that “female homosexuality is something essentially different from male homosexuality. There is a temporary and extremely fluid quality to it. The flames of that love are pale.” [2]

Another reason that male homosexuality caused greater concern stemmed from France’s grappling with the humiliation of German occupation and related concerns that since the defeats in 1870 and in World War I, French men had been growing ever more feeble. Tales of the courage of the French Resistance eased this so-called “crisis of masculinity” to some extent. Indeed, as Julian Jackson has pointed out in the years immediately following the war, there was an effort to highlight “the emphasis in the rhetoric of the Resistance on the values of masculinity and virility.” [3] Yet, stories of the bravery of the Résistants could not entirely erase the memory of the Occupation and of collaboration with the Germans, which loomed large and symbolized a general decline “stemming from feminine attitudes, especially through the image of a prostrated France.” [4] During the interwar years, “the trench soldier became the very image of manhood…[and] the contrast between that image and one of frightened men cowering at the edge of France, waiting for an airlift, could hardly be starker. French masculinity and virility had been compromised by the events of the war.” [5] In the years following the Liberation, fears of a weakened France, “favored the development of a mindset conducive to the consolidation of a masculine social order.” [6] Male homosexuals were blamed for contributing to this emasculation and became an obvious scapegoat for the imagined weakening of French men. To make matters worse, in “a famous article about the psychology of the collaborator which he linked to passivity and homosexuality,” Sartre drew the public’s attention to the stories of collaboration by several high-profile gay literary figures, thereby further advancing the notion of male homosexuals as a threat to the nation. [7]

A final reason that male homosexuality received more attention than female homosexuality is that a law from the Vichy period, which remained in force after the war and was aimed at protecting youth from homosexual acts, was clearly directed at men and male adolescents. Sexual acts between consenting adults in private had been legal in France since 1791. This unusual legal tolerance – all of France’s neighbors listed “sodomy” as a crime throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth – did not necessarily equate with social tolerance, and expressions of homosexual desire tended to be discreet. Yet it is noteworthy that by the 1950s, the only mention of homosexuality in the French penal code was in a law originally passed in 1942 that created two different ages of sexual majority, 15 for heterosexual acts (for a short time, from 1942 to 1945, the age was actually 13) and 21 for homosexual acts.

A look at the history of the 1942 law demonstrates that male homosexuals and not lesbians were its target and underscores the extent to which lesbians were not on the moral radar of the time. A few shared notions about homosexuality stand out in all the reports leading up to the 1942 law. It was generally accepted, for example, that the main way that a person, almost always imagined as male, became homosexual was through “contagion” during the vulnerable years of adolescence. In the various documents produced in support of this law, descriptions of young male prostitutes confirmed this by maintaining that before being fully contaminated by the disease of homosexuality, they were driven to have sex with other men not by homosexual desire but financial desperation, and that before fully succumbing to the disease, they maintained their virility by always performing the role of the insertive partner. [8] This association of homosexuality with pederasty (sex between an adult male and an adolescent boy) and the fears of homosexuality spreading were almost entirely limited to representations of male homosexuality. It was implicit in the 1942 law and increasingly appropriated by male homosexuals in their representations of themselves. To this day, the slang term for a male homosexual is pédé, short for pédéraste. [9]

Though lawmakers may not have been thinking about women “contracting” homosexuality the same way that men would, the film does hint at the possibility of lesbian “contagion.” The young women come across as innocent, naïve, vulnerable, and highly impressionable. Mademoiselle Julie struggles with her desire for Olivia, perhaps in order to spare her from contamination. In one of Julie’s final discussions with Olivia, she tells her that she has already done enough harm to people in her life and the last thing she wants to do is to harm Olivia. It is unclear, however, whether Olivia is ultimately spared from the harm that Julie alludes to. Upon bidding farewell to Olivia, Julie gives her a precious letter-opener as a present, which Olivia ends up throwing out of her bedroom window, indicating that she wants to put the whole story behind her and move on. However, the film’s final scene shows Olivia in a carriage leaving the school accompanied by the school’s cook, Victoire, who returns the letter-opener to her, saying that she must have forgotten it. Olivia takes the present back and holds it tenderly, a subtle indication that she does not intend to close this chapter of her life entirely after all.

This film could serve as a springboard for multiple discussions among students. For one thing, it can serve as a reminder that there are always two historical periods to consider when analyzing a narrative about the past: the period described and the period when it was written. Of the two, a narrative frequently tells us more about latter, as I would assert is the case with Olivia. Another discussion that could arise is to what extent a particular historical context determines the range of possibilities for literary and filmic expression. In this review, I have taken a fairly deterministic approach, suggesting that the relative invisibility of lesbians in 1950s France, which may have even been internalized by lesbians themselves, allowed them to escape the gaze of moral disapprobation and permitted a film like Olivia to be produced. However, students may legitimately question whether such an approach goes too far in denying the possibility for individual, counter-cultural creation.

Another topic for discussion is the extent to which Olivia delivers a judgmental or approving representation of same-sex attraction between women. As I mentioned earlier, the, at times, judgmental tone of the film may have helped it avoid censorship. Yet, the film also managed to deliver a surprisingly frank representation of same-sex attraction for anyone who was looking for it. Students could look for specific elements in the film that helped to avoid censorship as well as those that allowed lesbian viewers of the time to find in it a tender representation of love between women.

A class discussion comparing reception of the film in France and in the US could bring out some of the broad differences between the two societies in the 1950s. It is interesting to compare the lack of censorship and even the generally positive evaluation of Olivia in France to the film’s reception in the United States, where the title of the film was changed to Pit of Loneliness, a title that has little to do with the film’s plot. A New York Times review of the film highlighted its “tragic” elements, explaining that “Mlle. Audry has handled a tragic subject with sensitivity and a wistful, fragile grace. But the fact that the situation the lady presents in this film—a rivalry among several people for the handsome headmistress’s regard — is loaded with tragic implications.” [10] Though I was unable to find a French review of the film from the time, I did find a review of the novel from Le Monde, which rhapsodized, “Here is a small masterpiece. I know the caution and scruples one must have in using this word…The tone of the simple, harmonious plot fills this moving story with luminous grace.” [11]

While it is true that similar stereotypes about the nature of same-sex attraction between women exist in both countries, the other two reasons for the relative lack of concern about female homosexuality — fears of emasculated men and a focus on male pederasty in the penal code — were not as salient in the US context, which could explain why male and female homosexuals had more similar levels of visibility in the US than in France. The 1950s lesbian association, the Daughters of Bilitis, for example, had no counterpart in France, nor did the phenomenon of lesbian pulp fiction novels in 1950s America.

Moreover, there are other broad features of both societies that explain why both female and male French homosexuals have been less visible, and therefore less restricted, than their counterparts in the US. Generally speaking from the 1950s until today, French lesbians and gays have been inclined to live their sexuality more discretely and to embrace identity politics with less enthusiasm than Americans. Indeed, the values of French republicanism have managed to keep expressions of both pro-homosexual and anti-homosexual sentiment within a narrower range in France than has been the case in the United States — a country where both “gay pride” and homophobia have tended to be expressed more aggressively. [12]

More specifically, the French Republic has protected its lesbian and gay citizens primarily through the core values of secularism, the separation between public and private spheres, and French universalism (i.e., the valorization of social assimilation and the rejection of American-style multiculturalism); together these values have been responsible for keeping homosexuality legal in France and for limiting the possibilities for the most overt forms of homophobia. But French republicanism has also created restraints. The strong separation between public and private spheres means that the American notion that “the personal is political” has resonated differently in the context of France, and public displays of sexual identity have not always been well received. In addition, since the universalist discourse of French republicanism maintains that the opportunity to be socially integrated exists in principle for anyone willing to accept the restrictions of assimilation, tolerance of difference is not what is called for.

The analysis of Olivia in the context of 1950s France is thus a reminder of the extent to which invisibility can be a double-edged sword. In this case, it allowed for the film to avoid the same kind of scrutiny that a French film about male homosexuality would have or any film about homosexuality in the US would have. At the same time, lesbian invisibility served as an impediment to political mobilization and contributed to the continued social marginalization of lesbians.

Jacqueline Audry, Olivia (1951) France. 95 min. B&W. Icarus Films (2019).


1. As far as I can tell, the only other French film of the time to explicitly depict same-sex attraction without being censored was the 1954 film version of Sartre’s Huis Clos, which also depicted attraction between women, rather than men, and also happened to be directed by Jaqueline Audry.

2. Cited in Claudie Lesselier, “Formes de résistances et d’expression lesbiennes dans les années cinquante et soixante en France,” Louis-Georges Tin (ed.) Homosexualités expression/repression (Paris: Stock, 2000): 105-116.

3. Julian Jackson, “Sex, Politics and Morality in France, 1954–1982,” History Workshop Journal 61 no. 1 (2006): 85.

4. Luc Capdevila, “Le Mythe du guerrier et la construction sociale d’un éternel masculin après la guerre,Revue française de psychanalyse 62 no. 2 (1998) : 608.

5. Kelly Ricciardi Colvin, Gender and French Identity after the Second World War, 1944-1954 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2019): 52.

6. Luc Capdevila, “Le Mythe du guerrier et la construction sociale d’un éternel masculin après la guerre,Revue française de psychanalyse, 62 no. 2 (1998) : 608.

7. Julian Jackson, “Sex, Politics and Morality in France, 1954–1982,” History Workshop Journal 61 no. 1 (2006): 85.

8. See Scott Gunther, The Elastic Closet: A History of Homosexuality in France, 1942-present, (New York: Palgrave, 2009): 25-32.

9. The term, which was once only used as an insult, has been reappropriated by many queer French men, and in contemporary usage, the literal meaning is largely ignored.

10. Bosley Crowther, “The Screen: French Film Bows,” The New York Times (April 9, 1954): 19.

11. Marcel Brion, “Olivia racontée par Olivia,” Le Monde (June 16, 1949).

12. See Scott Gunther, The Elastic Closet: A History of Homosexuality in France, 1942-present (New York: Palgrave, 2009): 1-2.