Women Make Film: Jacqueline Audry and Chantal Akerman

On Sept. 1, TCM launched a 14-week series, Women Make Film: A road trip through 100 films across 44 countries and 12 decades of cinema.

One of the delights of TCM’s line-up is how certain movies bump up against each other—how two films tracing similar themes can appear worlds apart through setting and technique. Exhibit A from Week One: 1951’s Olivia from Jacqueline Audry, and 1975’s Je tu il elle from Chantal Akerman.

Olivia, based on Dorothy Bussy’s 1950 novel, opens and closes with a carriage ride to an all-girls’ boarding school deep in wooded country. Though the ride isn’t a frantic as the one in Nosferatu, it does bring Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) to an enchanted place, possibly even a mythical manifestation of desire. And when Olivia departs, there’s a sentiment that she can never return.

There are aspects of Olivia that come across as memory. On the surface, the school appears to be like any other. But a hand on the back here, a glance of the eyes there. The sound of a door opening and closing in the night betrays what’s beneath.

Olivia falls for her teacher, Mademoiselle Julie (Edwige Feuillère). Many of the girls do. Particularly Mademoiselle Cara (Simone Simon), who takes to Olivia but then rebuffs her once she suspects the ingénue as a challenger for Mlle. Julie’s attention.

Released in 1951, Olivia was censored in the United Kingdom and retitled The Pit of Loneliness for U.S. audiences. In 1954, French critic François Truffaut published his infamous essay in Cahiers du cinema, “A Certain Tendency in French Film,” which called out France’s “cinema of quality” and the filmmakers he deemed reliant on literature at the expenditure of cinema. And though Truffaut did not single out Audry or Olivia in his essay, it did the intended damage. That same decade, Truffaut put down the critic’s pen and picked up a camera, sweeping away France’s cinema of quality with the tide of the French New Wave.

Thankfully, Olivia’s been resurrected—both for its subject matter and the talent behind the camera. Audry, once an assistant director to Max Ophüls, photographs this world with fluid camera movements and rococo frames. There’s a Wellesian touch to her direction and staging.

Take this entrance: In the foreground, Mlle. Cara plays the piano. Next to her are candles, but they do not light the scene. If they did, the background would be swallowed up by black. Instead, we can see back to the door. And when Mimi (Marina de Berg) enters, the focus does not shift planes. Action and relation are accomplished in one frame.

Consider now Akerman’s Je tu il elle (I You He She) from 1975. Also shot in black and white and also depicting a lover rebuffed, Je tu il elle opens in a room antithetical to Audry’s lavish decor. There’s no carriage ride to carry Julie (Akerman) to and from her domicile; she’s already locked herself in by the movie’s start. A small room, “as narrow as a corridor,” populated only by Julie and a smattering of furniture.

She moves the furniture around, then out. Gathers a stack of paper and writes a letter—then re-writes it. She strips naked, naps, and eats sugar from a brown paper bag. She’s isolating herself. Is she trying to excise the demons of a former lover?

Then, one day, she dresses and leaves the room and starts hitchhiking.

We’re worlds away from Olivia’s baroque boarding school in the French woods. Wearing a thick raincoat, Akerman’s Julie stands on the side of a freeway in a world that looks almost futuristic. Dystopian, even.

Audry was forgotten until recently. Akerman garnered some appreciation throughout the years, but not enough. Both deserve to be seen more. That’s the beauty of TCM’s series: Forgotten or overlooked works can receive the same appreciation and study as the usual suspects. And even more invigorating, they show how film style can change drastically over a short period. Though 24 years separate Olivia and Je tu il elle, they almost feel as if a century exists between them.

Header photo: Jacqueline Audry courtesy Dogwoof. Bottom photo: Chantal Akerman, credit: Elizabeth Lennard/Opale/Leemage. All others images courtesy The Criterion Collection.
Both Olivia and Je tu il elle are available to stream on Watch TCM and The Criterion Channel. TCM’s series Women Make Film continues this Tuesday.