19 December 2005
100 films: Camille
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starring: Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, and Elizabeth Allan
written by: Zoe Akins & Frances Marion and James Hilton, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils
directed by: George Cukor
NR, 109 min, 1936, USA
Parisian courtesan Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo) is torn between two suitors. She loves Armand Duval (Robert Taylor), an aspiring diplomat of modest means who has loved her from afar, but is simultaneously being wooed by the Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell), a wealthy and influential man who will give her anything she ever needs. When convinced by Duval's father (Lionel Barrymore) that she must leave Duval for his own good, she goes to the Baron.
Camille is one of many adaptations of the Dumas play La Dame aux camélias, and perhaps the most famous. At very least, it is the only one to star Greta Garbo. The story contains all the elements of a classic soap opera: multiple lovers, intrigue, a fated heroine, battles against class structures, and even a duel. You see, Marguerite has what appears to be consumption, so no matter who she chooses, it is destined to end badly. And even though Duval's father doesn't know this, he does know that being attached to a courtesan isn't good for his son's career prospects and that left alone to his own devices he'll waste his life with this woman. So he asks her to make Duval not love her. And while she agrees for his sake, part of her is doing it because she knows her health means she won't last to old age. It is a painful decision to be sure, and a heroic, unselfish one that is viewed by those without intimate knowledge of her motives as the social climbings of a calloused soul.
And who better to play a woman torn between two motives than Greta Garbo? There's something inherent in her complexion that allows her to play anything, from a stern Russian in Ninotchka to the woman head-over-heels in love here, and be completely believable in both roles. Her face suggests she's seen the world, so little she does surprises us. A courtesan makes sense, as does a communist, and I imagine several other roles as well. There aren't many actresses that can play so many nationalities and play them all well.
It should be pointed out that while Camille isn't the greatest film ever made (or even the best film made that year, I imagine), it has a certain quality you can't quite figure out. Part of that is due to Garbo and Taylor's chemistry, and part of it may just be the slight shock in seeing Lionel Barrymore play someone other than Mr. Potter. Even for a period drama, the film has not aged all that well, but the story is a timeless one that cuts through the drivel and strikes a resounding chord that in the end all you need is love. Because the greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return. Even if the Baron gets her body, he cannot have her heart.
 Shades of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (2001), to be sure. Minus the songs and the dancing and the narcoleptic Argentinian, the plots are almost identical. This can mean one of two things: 1) Luhrmann took most of the plot from Camille, or 2) Cukor built a time machine and took the plot from Moulin Rouge!. The romantic in me would like to think the latter, but that seems unlikely.
 Alexandre Dumas fils wrote this play and the original novel, but is not to be confused with his father, the legendary Alexandre Dumas père. The elder Dumas wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.
 Lest someone actually assume all of these things exist in the original play and/or novel, I'll add this disclaimer: I have not read it. And if you think I'm going to read an entire play just to check for accuracy here, you've lost your mind.
 Also known as tuberculosis. Just like Nicole Kidman.