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GREAT EUROPEAN LIVES: Iconic film-maker Jacqueline Audry

Jacqueline Audry (1908-1977), French film-maker in 1955. Photo: Gaston Paris - Credit: Roger Viollet via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on Jacqueline Audry, the iconic French film-maker who subverted post-war cinema

Jacqueline Audry’s films were sumptuous. At her peak during the 1950s she produced a succession of costume dramas set during the Belle Époque, most of them adaptations from novels in which the rustle of taffeta began as the opening credits faded and kept rustling until the end: big dresses, big hats, big characters.

On the face of it they seem as conventional as they come: beautifully lit, almost entirely shot in the studio, precise dialogue and grand gestures, the sort of films you might find when you switch on the television on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Indeed, so conventional did they seem that François Truffaut dismissed them entirely when he established the Nouvelle Vague that would come to dominate French cinema, citing them as exactly the kind of thing he was reacting against. Overwrought and dull, he thought, perfect examples of the stagnation and lack of ambition that characterised post-war French cinema.

Yet you don’t have to examine Audry’s films too closely to realise they were arguably some of the most subversive ever made. For one thing, she was a woman, the only woman regularly making films in France in the post-war era until Agnès Varda, and the most prolific French woman filmmaker since Germaine Dulac made her series of silent shorts during the 1920s.

For another, Audry’s films focused on women characters who were nuanced and complex, flawed and brilliant with depths, layers and defined narrative threads rather than being mere love interests or one-dimensional supporting roles. Audry’s were women’s stories, not just stories that happened to feature women. Her leads were great women, dysfunctional women, women who had relationships with women; women dealing with and experiencing issues that specifically affected women. They weren’t just there to look for husbands, indulge husbands, infuriate or pine for husbands, these films placed women at the centre of women’s narratives. The fact the films looked like standard melodramas made them almost Trojan horses ripe for hoodwinking the patriarchy.

Audry’s 1951 film Olivia is perhaps her finest, certainly it’s her most enduring. On the face of it a straightforward coming of age costume drama set in a boarding school, Olivia was a daringly assertive film to make at the dawn of the 1950s. Adapted from a novel of the same name by the English writer Dorothy Bussy, Olivia is set in a residential finishing school for girls in the French countryside during the last days of the 19th century. The school is run by two headmistresses, the elegant Mademoiselle Julie and the sickly Mademoiselle Cara, who are either lovers or former lovers. Either way they enjoy the rivalry they have established for the girls’ affections and how the girls’ loyalties divide between them.

Then Olivia arrives, a girl sent from the strict, buttoned-up primness of an English boarding school to be plunged into an atmosphere quite unlike anything she’s used to. Far from being marched around in single file under an order of silence the girls mill about, chatting, exploring their creativity and personalities in a place where nothing is stifled. Olivia is intoxicated by her new school and soon by Madame Julie herself, an intoxication that is not one way.

Its routines and rhythms may be free and relaxed but the school is not a paradise. There are rivalries and factions among the girls and the arrival of Olivia even increases tensions between Julie and Cara, but as an exploration of female relationships, from friendship to sexual attraction, Olivia is a groundbreaking film, one held up today as an example of pioneering queer cinema. A restored print was released in 2019.

Where Audry succeeds is in combining the broad strokes of a traditional corset-bound costume melodrama with moments of intense intimacy that require a subtle touch from the director, a stolen glance here, a sharp intake of breath there. The increasing closeness between Julie and Olivia, the pupil whose welfare has been placed in her hands, might be troublesome in the modern climate but Audry’s direction makes the film timeless because the way she handles the themes it explores is sensitive and nuanced.

Although it was heavily censored for some markets – the version released in the UK was so butchered it barely made sense – Olivia was widely praised, its thrumming strand of eroticism earning, surprisingly for 1950, only light condemnation from critics and audiences. In the US the film was given the title The Pit of Loneliness, a deliberate allusion to Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian-themed 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, but even this didn’t bring the gatekeepers of traditional morality onto the streets..

A few reviewers mentioned in passing the almost complete absence of men from the film but otherwise the almost entirely female world of Olivia was not regarded as problematic or even worthy of note.

Not since Leontine Sagan’s 1931 Mädchen in Uniform had female relationships been portrayed so explicitly and in such detail, and it would be another 18 years before Radley Metzger’s Therese and Isabelle would explore similar themes so successfully in mainstream cinema.

Olivia represented the pinnacle of Audry’s career and its positive reception was a testament to her skill as a filmmaker as much as the performances she elicited from her actors.

She’d served a lengthy apprenticeship, working under some of the greatest European directors. Born into an aristocratic family – her great uncle was both a president and prime minister of France – Audry was by rights destined for a ‘good’ marriage and a life of undiluted privilege among the European elite. Instead she was determined to break into the world of cinema and unafraid to work her way up from the bottom.

In the years leading up to the Second World War she moved from working in continuity to become a script supervisor and then assistant director to G.W. Pabst, who made Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl with Louise Brooks, and Max Ophüls, master of the tracking shot and a specialist in costume drama who became her greatest influence.

In 1942, as the Nazi occupiers tightened their grip on Paris, Audry left for her native region in the Midi, where she learned of a new cultural initiative designed to unearth fresh filmmaking talent. Although she’d worked in the industry for a number of years she was frustrated that her ambitions to direct her own films had been thwarted by her gender: under the scheme she was able to make a short documentary about mountain sheep being brought down to their summer pasture.

Having something of her own to showcase her talent at last meant that once the war was over she was able to secure her first studio feature, Les Malheurs de Sophie, based on a popular children’s novel by the Comtesse de Ségur. It was heavily censored on release and much of it has been lost, but what remains confirms her long apprenticeship had produced a fully-formed filmmaker. The fluid camera work and the richness of the lighting demonstrated everything she had learned from Ophüls and the rest as well as showcasing exactly what she had to offer, especially when handed a strong female-led storyline.

Audry’s first major success was an adaptation of Colette’s novel Gigi in 1949 from a screenplay written by her sister, also named Colette, and a film that made a star of Danièle Delorme in the title role. She went on to make 16 films yet despite achieving success artistically, critically and at the box-office (albeit one UK reviewer sneered at her 1958 film C’est la faute d’Adam ‘Tawdry Audry seems to have run out of perversions’) she still found herself thwarted creatively.

‘It took me five years to convince a producer to risk his money with a woman,’ she reflected during the 1960s. ‘If I had been a man I would have been a producer at least five years sooner. Even after my first big picture it was three years before I could find backing for Gigi.’

Probably her biggest regret was never fulfilling her ambition to direct an adaptation of Stendahl’s Le Rouge et le Noir, one of the most significant novels in French literature. So determined was she with the idea her dogs were names Rouge and Noir. Overtaken by the revolution of the Nouvelle Vague Jacqueline Audry faded into the background during the 1960s. It’s only now that her importance to cinema, particularly queer cinema, is finally being acknowledged.

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