From France, the beguiling, haunting Olivier, Olivier is Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s companion-piece to her Europa Europa from the year before. Both, fact-based, center on an adolescent boy whose life is unimaginably rough—in Salomon’s case, in Europa Europa, because he is a German Jew impersonating a Nazi to elude imprisonment and death; in Olivier’s case, because, a runaway from home where he was sexually abused, he ekes out a perilous existence as a prostitute. Olivier, also, leads a “double life,” once he expediently slips into the role of Elizabeth and Serge Duval’s son, who disappeared, at age nine, six years earlier. And, like Salomon, he gets away with it, convincing even the parents. Indeed, some of his behavior argues that he must be little Olivier six years hence, even though, eventually, the child’s remains are discovered in a neighbor’s basement. We have, then, a mystery of time and identity, of the kind of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique (1991). And we have one film mirror-imaging the other; for, if Europa, Europa is the story of a boy with two identities, then Olivier, Olivier is the story of two boys with the same identity. How different their fates, though. Salomon Perel’s impersonation—his double being—rescues him, reuniting him with the one other family member of his to survive the Holocaust; but, bound by guilt, Olivier sacrifices his search for his own mother in order to adopt permanently the role of the Duvals’ lost son.
Informing the film is Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood.” When nine-year-old Olivier takes off from his parents’ country home, on his sister’s bicycle, he is wearing his red 49ers cap and is headed to his ailing grandmother’s house with a basket of food that his mother prepared; en route, he is lured off the path by a “wolf”—Marcel, whose sexual overtures precipitate the child’s death down a flight of stairs. (For an even more bizarre and terrifying updating of the story, consult Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, 1973, from Daphne du Maurier.) In a silly, later version of the tale, the child, ripped from the wolf’s belly, survives. Holland’s film, then, encompasses both versions; by impersonating, or replacing, the dead boy, Olivier is—to apply Elizabeth’s phrase describing her son’s miraculous recovery from his almost fatal premature birth—“born twice.”
Little Red Riding Hood’s vulnerability is encapsulated by her namelessness; her only “protection,” symbolized by the cloak her grandmother made for her, is the family identity that contests her right to an identity of her own. This child exists solely as a family extension; the family permits her none of the individuality or independence that might save her. In Holland’s splendid film, both Oliviers are likewise victims of “family”: the nine-year-old, whose dependence on her his mother, almost hysterically fearful of losing him, has fostered, whose neglected, jealous sister, Nadine, terrorizes him, and whose surrogate father, Marcel, tries molesting him, causing his death; the fifteen-year-old, whose mother, ignorant of what was happening under her own roof, failed to protect him from the stepfather who raped him. Moreover, the latter boy ends up appropriated by the Duvals, with whom he remains in order to console them and keep them on an even keel and to assuage his guilt for having pretended to be their son in the first place. In perhaps the most radical reading possible, the film implies that the pressure that family members feel to flesh out the form and features of a myth makes any family, in effect, “surrogate,” the non-surrogate “reality” becoming the fantasy ideal every family must fail to realize. In the meantime, Olivier’s life is destroyed. It misses the point completely to suggest that, since “Olivier” has found the Duvals and the Duvals have found him, everyone benefits from the arrangement because none of them will ever be lonely again. Like Little Red Riding Hood, “Olivier” ends up having no name or identity except what “the family”—here, the Duvals—self-servingly confers on him. His life is over before it hardly began.
The film opens with what, in retrospect, is bleak irony. The screen is black. We hear a plaintive tune. Marcel, the young man whistling it, bicycles through a field; it is the tune he later plays as a trumpeted lament the fateful morning Olivier bicycles by his place on the way to Grandmother’s. For now, though, the camera slowly picks up Olivier safely playing with sister Nadine elsewhere in the field. Leading the play, Nadine, who is older, conjures a fantasy of alien intrusion that she and her brother must guard against. Of course, the real danger to them both is much closer to home. Nadine crushes a beetle—a show of force, invincibility. As Marcel pedals through, she raises to her eye a tube and makes a noise that magically translates into a beebee that knocks Marcel onto the grass. Undetected, the children giggle over his tumble. But it is Marcel who will decisively end their childhoods. Their power over him is illusory. It is adults who hold final power over children. Later, “Olivier” relishes manipulating the Duvals, all the while unaware that it is he who is helpless in their tightening grip.
Olivier’s disappearance clarifies the painfulness of the Duvals’ lives. Their “powers,” mental or imaginative, always come up short. Initially, Nadine believes that she herself wished Olivier out of the family for being their mother’s favorite; yet she cannot wish him back, even to relieve her own enormous pain. All she can do with her “mind” is perform parlor tricks: topple things; extinguish light bulbs. True, her initial guilt over Olivier’s disappearance gives way to gladness over having her mother, now, to herself; but her depth of love for her brother, which Holland is careful to show, becomes a retroactive index of her pain over his loss. Her mother can do even less to alter reality. Holding herself responsible for Olivier’s leaving home, because she failed to provide him with a “normal” environment, she is haunted by his image. After the boy’s “return,” when Nadine abruptly exits while she and Elizabeth are quarreling, through the outside door, flung open, Elizabeth “sees” her nine-year-old happily at play on a backyard swing, and she “hears” his giggling. But the visitation charts their non-negotiable separation; Olivier occupies a child’s world-of-his-own which his mother can “look at” but not enter. Even forging a continuity of identity between the two Oliviers cannot restore her cherished child to her aching arms.
But Elizabeth’s desire for this, plainly, is what leads her to accept this other boy as her lost son, despite the fact that he is missing Olivier’s round face, long eyelashes, freckles. Each point of similarity she can find, such as the “new” Olivier’s appendectomy scar, she clings to in defiance of the more considerable evidence of dissimilarity. Serge joins her in this, but for another reason as well; for this “return” of their son has meant the restoration of their marriage following a separation caused by Elizabeth’s appropriation of their loss as entirely her own—much as, previously, she had nurtured a closeness with the child that effectively had shut this father out. And why does Inspector Druot accept “Olivier” as Olivier, despite the physical dissimilarities between the two boys, despite the fact that the correct answers to his questions that “Olivier” provides—mostly, family names—the teenager could have gleaned from the case folder lying open on the policeman’s desk? Guilt. The boy’s disappearance had been his first case, which in the absence of productive leads he had had to close—but only after promising Elizabeth and Nadine that he would find their son and brother. Having failed to do this, he must come up with “Olivier” no matter what. Also, Druot’s career has stagnated under the stigma of this beginning failure of his—a situation he is motivated to reverse.
Why, however, does the boy himself say he is Olivier? Well, he never really does, although he craftily says enough to let others believe what they want. When interrogated, the boy is defensively glib. (From his eye movements and body language, it’s clear he is afraid of a beating.) Of the mother he is in Paris in search of, he says: “She is a Baltic empress. She was dumped by the Emir of Kuwait. Now she’s a maid at the Swedish embassy. Her father’s Scandinavian.” This cocky mixture of fairy-tale romance and real-world degradation reminds us of the childhood this “toilet hustler” has been robbed of; its riches-to-rags reversal of a fairy tale, in fact, implies a longing for childhood in one too steeped in a sordid world to hold out much hope of regaining it. More: his search for his mother suggests a specific fantasy that the teenager may be holding close to him. Might he not dream of rescuing her from whatever brutal fate his sudden departure from home may have provoked? When asked for her name, the boy restores her to a pedestal by replying, “Greta Garbo.” His ambivalence regarding her is simple to fathom but very painful to take in; he wants to protect his mother, but he also wants her to have protected him and to continue to do so—a crisis of confusion as to whether he is, or should be, a grownup or a child. This is heartrending stuff.
The adolescent’s fierce independence, though, kicks in to curb his pretense at being someone other than he is. When he shifts tone to declare,
I’m telling you the truth. No kidding: My name is Sébastien Blanche[,]
there is no doubt he is being truthful. However, it isn’t the truth Druot is desirous of. When Sébastien asks what will happen to him now, Druot, instead of offering help to find the boy’s mother, presents three choices: being returned to his miserable, ugly life, being sent to reform school, or, if only he “admits” to being Olivier Druot, being sent home to an environment whose protective warmth and happiness Druot greatly exaggerates. In effect, Sébastien’s “choice” is made for him. Also, he “confesses” to being Sébastien because he aches to please, which he likely associates with not being hit or hurt. Later, he confesses (again) to being Sébastien; this comes after he exposes Marcel as a child molester, in order to protect a boy littler than himself, and offers a solution to the real Olivier’s disappearance. “Why did you pretend?” Druot asks. Sébastien replies: “It’s what you wanted. It suited everyone. To make you happy.”
By “becoming” Olivier, Sébastien makes Elizabeth happiest of all. But when she takes him “home” by train the scene is fraught with a sense of the emotional danger he is being drawn into. Elizabeth rushes into their compartment with enough sandwiches for a family picnic, all for “Olivier”—feeding as a form of consuming. Already the boy is asleep by the window, utterly passive, vulnerable. Elizabeth cannot resist; she sits beside him. Fearing forgiveness isn’t possible, she pleads, “You’ll forgive me?” (Later, she explains, “It isn’t blackmail—but if you disappear again, I won’t be able to survive it.”) She starts to caress the boy’s cheek. His nervous system revulses; asleep still, he throws up his hand at her. Holland sharply cuts to the landscape fleeing, as if in terror, past the train window. Sébastien’s fate seems sealed. He will not be permitted not to be “Olivier.”
The one Duval who doesn’t believe him, who isn’t willing to pretend that he is Olivier, is Nadine. Since her brother’s disappearance and her father’s departure, she has had her mother all to herself. Even if correct, then, her skepticism about “Olivier” is as self-serving as everyone else’s acceptance of him. Her waking dream-world is disintegrating, revealing the extent to which she also has been crippled by “family.” To be sure, Nadine is unusual (as a scene showing her, in bed, stroking her pet lizard drives home), but she isn’t “her own person” as much as she thinks she is, for she has been shaped by her mother’s obsessive attachment to Olivier. This is why, although she dearly loved her brother, she bullied him and wished him, literally, out of a family picture in the first place. Now Nadine unreasonably expects Elizabeth to decline to have sex with her husband for the sake of some unspoken pact of sisterhood between mother and daughter. Like “Olivier,” Nadine is caught up in a tangle of blurred family roles. Her making love with Sébastien adds to this—although, for us, this humanizes her. In the midst of his deception, it also exposes Sébastien’s essential honesty. When Nadine (oddly) notes she hadn’t expected such pleasure from sex with a man, Sébastien replies, “But I’m not a man—I’m a boy.” It would seem that their having sex should keep Nadine fortified against accepting Sébastien as her brother; but the incestuous implication doesn’t deter, or apparently even faze, her. Now she believes Sébastien is Olivier. It is as if “incest” has moved her to openness to the possibility, perhaps as a rebuke to the whole idea of family. But the actual point of revelation waits for the next day. Through the window she sees “Olivier” merrily engaged in a “peeing contest” with Paul, the neighborhood child he will later rescue from Marcel’s grip; this is what Olivier and Marcel used to do, and “Olivier” is singing the same song that they used to sing together. Nadine’s initial hold-out lends credence to the idea that Olivier and “Olivier,” if not one and the same, are somehow connected—this, the core of mystery contributing to the film’s quality of elusiveness.
The film’s final scene argues best for this mystical connection between the two boys. Immediately preceding it, the dead child’s body is dug up in Marcel’s basement. Only Olivier’s wristwatch is shown, its face missing, suggesting a stoppage of time, to prepare us for a drift from reality to fantasy. Serge faints; Nadine spits in Druot’s face; the screen goes black.
The final passage consists of six shots. The first is the longest. Night: Nadine stares out the window, presumably at Olivier, at play, in her mind’s eye. The camera pans left, from Nadine’s reflection to her person—the effect is that, somehow, we have passed through a looking-glass,—and proceeds to follow her as she turns to serve her father coffee. Grim, he says: “You got your truth. Is that what you wanted?” The camera dips to Elizabeth, seated, looking stark, spent, almost in shock; behind her, Nadine continues to walk screen-left across the room’s length and then, with a turn, screen-left halfway across the room’s width, in advance of “Olivier,” whose parallel walking, in an adjacent room, we see through an archway. The camera proceeds left, passing a halted Nadine, to show “Olivier” entering through another archway and, before penetrating the room, smiling at Serge, from whose face, transformed, all care seems to have fallen away. Thus this single fluid, intricately choreographed camera movement creates an invisible thread connecting all the family members, including “Olivier” and, at the outset, by implication, the actual Olivier. We are about to reach a cut, concluding this extraordinary first shot.
Rather than fluid and extensive, the next shots are short, static. The cut beginning the second shot of the sequence occurs when “Olivier” sits down beside Elizabeth, who is, as she has been before, in a trance. (This reverses the shot, on the train, where Elizabeth sits beside the sleeping, dreaming “Olivier.”) As Olivier had done as a child, and “Olivier” except for somehow “being” him could not have known, “Olivier” waves his hand in front of Elizabeth’s face, saying, as another cut brings us a closeup of her face, “Back to Earth, Mom; I’m here.” And, just like six years earlier, this snaps Elizabeth to. Like Serge’s, her torment dissolves. Smiling, she turns to “Olivier” and says: “Olivier. You’re here?” Cut three; shot four is a closeup of the boy’s tearfully smiling face. Elizabeth continues: “You came back?” Cut four; shot five is a closeup of Elizabeth’s reciprocally tearfully smiling face. One more cut delivers the final shot, mysterious, sad, haunting: through the window, amidst blowing rain, the vacant swing. “Olivier,” the replacement, must forever remain an index of inconsolable loss.
This closing, desolate shot sweeps away whatever might be mistaken for a happy family reconstitution. Rather, what has tragically occurred indoors, at least on one level, is the completed projection upon Sébastien of Olivier’s identity. To be sure, Sébastien himself chose to return to the Duvals. However, he was really driven back by a combination of guilt, confusion and compassion. However we come to make them, though, our choices have psychological consequences. Tactfully, Holland declined to pursue these in her powerful Europa Europa, which passes over the mental and spiritual costs for Perel, not only of denying his Jewishness for survival’s sake, but of masquerading as one of the killers committed to destroying Jewry. By contrast, Olivier, Olivier fully intimates the toll of its aftermath. For Sébastien, there is neither freedom nor redemption; there will be no Israel where he can start afresh. For this boy ends as a sacrifice to stabilizing the Duvals. His mystic connection to their son clears the pathway to the altar, where the boy Sébastien is as lost to himself as his actual mother is lost to him. All loss, Holland suggests, is permanent. The empty swing evokes Olivier’s fate and, it turns out, Sébastien’s.
Holland has made an authentic film, one where each character, even Marcel, is probed and found to be behaviorally rich and complex. Holland is analytical; she has no interest whatsoever in providing a comic strip of victims and villains. She embraces the humanity of her characters in order to embrace her own humanity.
Her sterling trilogy about childhood suffering, begun with Europa Europa, ended with The Secret Garden (1993), based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s story. Another magnificent piece of work, this (somewhat exacting) film may be Holland’s most persuasive achievement to date. It is another gripping portrait of children enslaved in any number of ways by the adults who should be nurturing and protecting them; and, rousingly, it leads, not to devastation, but to a liberation of spirit, for which Holland devises a visual metaphor nearly as stunning as the springtime breakup of river ice that images revolution’s triumph over the tsarist regime in Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926). For Holland uses time-lapse photography to capture a bursting into the sunlight of a dormant garden’s rebirth—stuff I remember from school science class films, here given fresh meaning and moral depth, to create a deeply moving passage. Since then, Holland has had Leonardo DiCaprio to contend with, playing Rimbaud no less, in an unpleasant Total Eclipse (1995); but she recouped with a fine Washington Square (1997), magnificently acted by Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Indeed, Holland directs actors wonderfully well. The acting in Olivier, Olivier, in fact, is nothing short of perfect. Brigitte Rouan and François Cluzet as Elizabeth and Serge Duval, and Frédéric Quiring as Marcel, are all excellent. Three of the other cast members are, however, superb. Jean-François Stévenin, a director himself, is brilliant as Druot, who, unaware of his psychological kinship with Marcel, seems to be turning away from himself when, in disgust, he turns away from Marcel after the digging up of the dead child. Faye Gatteau, as the six-year-later Nadine, and Grégoire Colin, who plays Sébastien, are memorable, too. Of course, in the decade since his exquisitely sensitive performing in this film, Colin has become one of the world’s great actors (Before the Rain, Fiesta, Nénette et Boni, The Dreamlife of Angels, Beau travail). This adds an unexpected note of pleasure to Holland’s film, for providing us in the U.S. with our first long look at Colin’s amazing talent, and his chiseled face and haunted eyes. Sébastien’s eyes.
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I am surprised you didn’t mention “magic realism” in your review as Nadine’s powers are presented. I expect the purpose was to inhabit the film with the aspect of a faire tale which it seems to be with the family living happily ever after in the traditional manner. Holland being Polish would doubtless be aware of Gunter Glass and Pawel Huelle, but her use of the device is less well integrated into the film as Huelle did so superbly in his novel, Weiser Dawidek. What I liked least about the film was the development of the young Olivier as so helpless, and then having the idea that he ran away forwarded. Still a fine picture and Grégoire Colin brings a subtlety to his role amazing for a 17 year old.