A child in a red cap goes to deliver lunch to Grandmother’s house but never returns. Except 6 years later, he does, cut from the belly of the big bad city. There’s no ambiguity in Olivier Olivier as to its relationship with fairytale. But this isn’t Angela Carter or Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. Agnieszka Holland’s clear, intelligent eye stares down the complex reality of an ailing family as it crumbles in the face of the loss of a child. If that was all she had done, looked at the fault lines in the family, described its disintegration and then its strange re-integration after the missing son returns, Olivier Olivier would have been a good and serious film. What makes it something more is the way this forensic clarity of vision is shot through with a deep sense of mystery. The allusion to Little Red Riding Hood carries with it the exact balance between the real, seen in all its concrete real-ness, and this other thing that shimmers within the real that is not explicable, not definable, but there.
Such shimmering is a visual entity in the final shot of the film, an empty swing blowing in the wind at night, surrounded by glittering rain, leaves or fireflies, some kind of incandescent confetti. But even before this image, which needs to be discussed in more detail because it is the heart as well as the end of the film, mystery is always present, if not always comprehendible. It runs through the story like a seam of metal deep in the earth. It is there from the opening moments, in Olivier’s sister Nadine’s paranormal power that topples Marcel from his bicycle. It is present in the questions raised by the plot: Who is the second Olivier? How can he know what he seems to know if the first Olivier is really long dead? It embeds itself in physical reality, and not just in the swing. When clearing things from the top of a wardrobe after his return, Olivier knocks a small ball with a clown’s face on it from the top of a wardrobe. It falls and bounces on the floor, eventually coming to rest. This ball has no meaning or significance within the film’s plot, but the camera stays with it in the real time that it takes to complete its physical trajectory. During the course of the shot the banality of the ball, the cheap physical nature of it, changes. The time it takes to watch the ball imbue it with other qualities. It was Olivier’s toy, one presumes. As it falls, bounces, rolls, slows, stops, it is allowed to become a vessel that can hold the mystery of Olivier – who he was, where he is, who he is now. Olivier’s identity spins like the ball (Is he real? Is he fake?), and for a moment the two things merge – the cheap ball/the street boy, the loved toy/the adored child.
Olivier’s identity is central. Its mystery is embedded in the film’s title. There is the eight-year-old Olivier, his mother’s favourite, who disappears, and then there is the teenager who returns, who both is and isn’t the lost boy. Where is the first Olivier, and who is the second? While these questions drive the film, they are also strangely irrelevant. After all, a lost boy is lost forever. Though his mother imagines him growing, buys larger clothes anticipating his return, the boy she loved so much is gone. She can never have back the boy she lost because he can no longer exist – he can never again be an eight-year-old who never disappeared. But even before he disappears, Olivier seems strangely empty. He is like a vessel – for his mother’s adoration, his sister’s jealousy, his father’s frustration and rage, Marcel’s desire. Outside of the strong feelings he evokes, there is little to define him. He has none of the solidity of the other characters. When he disappears, cycling out of the left edge of the screen into nothing, it is somehow not a surprise.
But the Olivier who returns – Olivier the second – though he is himself a mystery, though by the end one can even question his reality, is as solid and real, as alive as any human on screen. His first appearance in the corridor of the Parisian police station is extraordinary. The shock of his red cap is breathtaking. The face beneath the cap is equally so. This was one of the first appearances of Grégoire Colin, who went on to films such as La vie rêvée des anges (The Dreamlife of Angels, Erick Zonca, 1998) and Beau travail (Claire Denis, 1999). In those films his long, often mysterious face is frequently mask-like. Here, while it has that quality, it is also frequently cut through by a beautiful smile that seems to break open and physically rearrange his features – as though there are two people living in this one slight body. This mercurial face underlines the uncertainty of the character. Like his face, his story, his position, changes abruptly. His nature is constantly in question. At first one questions whether he is or isn’t Olivier, but eventually this practical question is subsumed by a greater one. Who is he? Sometimes it seems he is Olivier and sometimes it seems he isn’t. Even when Olivier’s dead body is found, his ability to be Olivier is not weakened. So who is he? An angel sent to heal the sick family or an imposter set to bleed them? Neither of these two explanations, one belonging to the mysterious heart of the film and another to its realism, is right. It is in the melding together of these two sides that the answer lays. Whoever he is, he seems able to walk in and out of Olivier’s vacant identity according to not only his need, but also the need of those around him.
Olivier was always central to his family’s needs, which may be why he seemed such an empty vessel. This is not a happy family, and even before Olivier leaves, it is a sick one. This sickness is masterfully presented in the sequence of scenes following the children’s bedtime. The mother’s different relationship to her two children is made clear by their spatial separation. Elizabeth lies next to Olivier on his bed, Nadine is in the interconnecting room, alone. Though she longs for her mother, she accepts this – strange for such a powerful girl. “Sing a song so I can hear” she asks, choosing to request the possible, rather than asking for her mother’s physical presence and being denied. When Elizabeth kisses her goodnight Nadine throws her arms around her mother in an expression of grasping need, which Elizabeth responds to with annoyance, prizing her hands apart: love, rejection, preference, need.
The subsequent bedtime scene featuring the parents is equally telling. Elizabeth does not respond to Serge’s complains as he undresses, as she is focused on listening for Olivier’s cries. Serge’s anger at this rejection of him – Elizabeth doesn’t even glance at his naked body as he undresses – manifests itself in ugly criticisms of her housekeeping. His response to her concerns about the children’s safety is to tell her that she is ill, an accusation he repeats several times during the scene. When Olivier arrives at his parent’s bed, Serge again uses images of sickness to attack his wife and child, accusing her of weakening her son’s masculinity. The physical violence with which he returns Olivier to his own bed is disturbing, but not as much as his subsequent exchange with his daughter (first attacking verbally – blaming her for his troubles – then expressing his love). Finally we see Nadine, who earlier tried to frighten Olivier as some kind of retort to his position as preferred child, offering him the comfort his father denied him and his mother, despite her love, is not prepared to fight for. In these two scenes every family relationship is made clear: mother/son, mother/daughter, husband/wife, father/son, father/daughter and brother/sister. Of all these, the only one that maintains a semblance of health is the last.
Bedtime scenes are particularly appropriate in essaying the family sickness, because it is in sex that this malady is most fully addressed. After Serge has taken Olivier back to bed Elizabeth, rather than challenging his approach and authority, tries awkwardly to seduce him. After Olivier’s disappearance, and following an agonising family fight, she again tries to seduce him, this time succeeding despite his powerful reluctance. But it is not him that she wants. “Give me a child”, she repeats, looking not in to her marriage, but outwards. When Serge returns from Africa he and his wife make love again – this time consensually. But in an echo of Elizabeth’s earlier “Give me a child”, Serge repeats the refrain “I missed you” again and again. Like her, it is his own need he articulates. Sex between them is never about pleasure. Worse, it is never about them. It is always about one individual’s need. This is why both of the encounters we see are so difficult to watch.
The most evident manifestation of the family sickness is also sexual – the incest between brother and sister. While Nadine does not believe that Olivier is her brother, the audience is not so sure, and therefore can only react in horror when they come together sexually. And yet, unlike the parents’ sex, this encounter is neither awkward to watch nor without pleasure – something which compounds the audience’s unease. But possibly the most shocking element of this incest is Nadine’s response when she watches Olivier and Paul peeing in the garden. At this moment she becomes convinced that he is her brother. And yet her response is not one of horror or disgust; she seems almost pleased.
This is a strange, mysterious response appropriate to Nadine’s character. Intensely powerful within her family, she is powerless to pull away from them. Her passion for her mother is, at times, itself almost sexual. For example, when they wrestle – Nadine naked – on the morning after Oliver’s return, this passion is so powerful that it overrides her rage and intelligence. A similar blend of love and anger is present in all her dealings with her father. Nadine is trapped, as so many children are, by her need for her parents love. The rage she feels in response to this trapped-ness, and in response to the calamity of Olivier’s disappearance, is channeled into her paranormal abilities. These unexplainable powers – presented and discussed within a realist framework – bring us back to the mystery that lies beneath the surface of this film. There is a constant swinging between the brutality of events and the strangeness of things. This swinging between events and things is finally resolved in the image of the empty swing.
In his poem, “Heart’s Needle”, W. D. Snodgrass describes the unbearable the loss of a child (because of divorce rather than death) through the image of the child on a swing, the painful tension between pushing away and coming back:
Here in the scuffled dust
is our ground of play.
I lift you on your swing and must
shove you away,
see you return again,
drive you off again, then
stand quiet till you come.
You, though you climb
higher, father from me, longer,
will fall back to me stronger.
Bad penny, pendulum,
you keep my constant time
to bob in blue July
where fat goldfinches fly
over the glittering, fecund
reach of our growing lands.
Once more now, this second,
I hold you in my hands. (1)
To lose a child is the worst thing. It is what parents endlessly imagine, and yet cannot really envisage at all. Olivier is lost from the family that, for all its sickness, loves and needs him. They are forever swinging between the memory of his presence and the reality of his absence, between the longing for his return and its impossibility. This is why, when Olivier’s body is dug up in Marcel’s cellar, it is still possible for Olivier to come back to his family, to say to his mother the same thing he said to her as a child. This is why the film can swing so easily from the real to the mysterious. It is the empty, glittering swing that ends the film that encapsulates these contradictions. Like poetry, an image in a film can hold within it what cannot be said, understood or presented in a more literal fashion. The final image of Olivier Olivier, which left me, when I first saw it, with a sense of exhilaration that is at odds with the brutality of the story, is one of the most perfect examples of the power of an image that I have ever seen.
- W. D. Snodgrass, “Heart’s Needle”, 1959, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171517.
Olivier Olivier (1992 France 110 mins)
Prod Co: Oliane Productions/Films A2/Canal+/Sofica Investimage 3/CNC Prod: Marie-Laure Reyre Dir, Scr: Agnieszka Holland Phot: Bernard Zitzermann Ed: Isabelle Lorente Prod Des: Hélène Bourgy Mus: Zbigniew Preisner
Cast: François Cluzet, Brigitte Rouan, Jean-François Stévenin, Grégoire Colin, Marina Golovine, Emmanuel Morozof, Faye Gatteau, Frédéric Quiring