Film Review: Olla

dir. Ariane Labed, 2019

‘Olla will be confronted with loneliness, boredom and violence under its most everyday forms. In facing this, Olla will be radical.

 

My desire to make this film comes from the need to make a singular portrait of a woman who refuses what a man projects on her. She refuses to be this fantasized figure who would accept to play a role in order to fill a gap. This is not a social drama, it is rather, I hope, a funny and cruel fable.’

Ariane Labed

 

Olla (Romanna Lobach), a mail-order bride from Eastern Europe, doesn’t just refuse she subverts. On arriving in a sleepy French suburb, one of the first things Olla’s husband/proprietor Pierre (Grégoire Tachnakian) does is rechristen her Lola. Lola isn’t just a gallicisation of her name but a sexualisation too, whilst giving a meta nod to cinema’s long legacy of eponymous showgirl-sex worker Lolas*. Just as Labed updates this cinematic trope, Olla never rescinds her identity, but has to work hard to undo the pre-conditioned image projected on to her and succeed in untying the anagram of her name.

 

Olla’s purchase is multi-purpose for Pierre––she is not just a live-in dancer-sex dispenser, but also a cleaning, cooking wifey, and carer for his mother (Jenny Bellay), who is immobile and mute. Speech is used economically in the film. Olla is denied a voice of her own as she doesn’t speak French (although at one point her phone’s translator app acts as a glorious, insincere, externalised voice box), but she does join the legacy of women, from Philomel to Ada in The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993), whose loss of voice stems from sexual subjugation but ultimately leads to a reclamation of power as these women move beyond language to assert themselves. Pierre’s mother belongs to the more common silent female archetype, which equates to a lack of autonomy and identity in a world that privileges the speech of men. 

 

Olla and her mother-in-law are significant foils for each other, in part because these two figures traditionally aren’t famed for their kinship. Their allyship and pathos for each other hinges on a reclamation of body-centric sexualised dignity, which is as heartwarming as it is humorous to see played out on an incapacitated septuagenarian. 

 

Olla’s definition of care-taking is to give her mother-in-laws a makeover, causing timid Pierre to slap Olla. For retribution, Olla takes to wearing an ankle-length housecoat that resembles a boiled wool sack when Pierre is home, and when he leaves dances, wonderfully badly, around the room humping walls, doors and windows, whilst wearing nothing but nude tights, black underwear and patent heeled boots. The camera frame is fixed, and both Olla’s mother-in-law’s and the viewer’s eyes follow Olla around the room. In the face of such boundary-pushing, defiant absurdity, the objectifying male gaze is halted in its tracks. 

 

There is a recurring group of young men, who live on Olla’s estate, and speak only in a collective chorus, cat-calling at Olla every time she passes them. She succeeds in silencing them when she offers herself up for sex work, an act that stays on the right side of empowered. Her status is further solidified when, after wiping the cum from her mouth, she is tenderly asked her name.

 

When it comes to power dynamics the most challenging relationship will always be between a man and wife, particularly when one has purchased the other. The more Pierre upsets Olla, the more she withholds from him and holds the upper hand. Up until, in an attempt to coerce Olla into seducing him, he starts dancing for her. Olla’s laughing turns to yelps turns to silence as he pulls her into the bedroom, and then rapes her.

 

Olla takes revenge by lighting four cigarettes and leaving them next to the open gas taps on the stove. She deposits Pierre’s mother out of harm’s way on the sidewalk, and makes her exit, just as she came, in her heels and dragging a suitcase. 

 

Everything about the film is tight, refreshing and expertly chosen, from how it looks to how it does, and doesn’t, sound.  

Watch it. 

 

Currently on Mubi

 

Lola Montès, dir. Max Ophüls, 1955

Lola, dir. Jacques Demy, 1961

Lola, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981

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