Friday, December 17, 2010

Review – Camille

December 17, 2010

Camille – U.S., 1936

It’s not simply Marguerite Gautier’s eyes that provide a window into her soul; it’s also her laugh. There are times when her laughter is so genuine that it gives those who receive it the impression that everything is how it should be, that she is happy and healthy and that her heart is true. And then there’s her other laugh – the short and controlled one that is usually preceded by her tossing her head back. This laugh is used to belittle someone, to ridicule a silly remark or a gesture of affection that she deems too naïve or idealistic to be taken seriously. In addition, her words can sting almost as much as her laugh, and if there’s one topic sure to bring out her caustic side, it’s the subject of romance. See, Marguerite Gautier does not believe in romantic love. She does not find it practical. Perhaps she has been burned by it in the past; perhaps she simply cannot afford the conditions that might be attached to it – things such as unconditional love and promises of for better or for worse. However, in films, whenever a character rails as much as she does against emotion and love, there’s a very good chance that love will soon find her, and Marguerite is not an exception to this rule.

Marguerite is the lead character in George Cukor’s 1936 film Camille. The film takes place in Paris in the late 1840’s, a time when some young women apparently went looking for financial security in places not traditionally thought of as romantic, places like theatres and gambling clubs. There, these women tried their best to attract the attention of men known more for their wallet than their personality. The more fun and beautiful a woman was, the more likely she was to attract a rich suitor. Notice I did not say husband. In fact, there’s little evidence that the Baron who pursues Marguerite wants anything more from her than a good time. I suppose the only reason he takes her back later is that it gives him a great deal of power over her.

When Marguerite isn’t attending social functions looking for Mr. Rich, she’s often hosting parties for a group of people that could only be described as friends out of politeness. They’re the kind of people who magically disappear whenever a problem arises and reappear whenever they need something or there’s a party. Her most frequent companion is Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Crews), a woman who has her own reasons for wanting to see Marguerite marry up the economic ladder. Another of her “friends” is a young woman named Olympe (Lenore Ulric) who at times acts as Marguerite’s competition. She thinks she’s being a friend when she buys Marguerite’s jewelry dirt cheap after Marguerite’s health begins to fail. There’s a saying about friends such as these. They don’t see that under the fake smile that Marguerite parades around all day, behind that “I haven’t a care in the world” attitude that she displays in public to mask her unhappiness, the life she is living is slowly killing her. In fact, the only one who does seem to notice is someone who admires her from afar, Mr. Armand Duvall (Robert Taylor).

Armand is one of two men pursuing Marguerite, the other being the Baron de Varville (Henry Danielle). The Baron, an older and much less sentimental man, is wealthy and well established in the world, which apparently makes it acceptable for him to be seen in public with whomever he chooses to be with. Armand, on the other hand, is a bit younger than Marguerite and therefore less experienced with affairs of the heart, something she reminds him from time to time. He’s just getting started in his career, and his family worries that being associated with Marguerite will not only ruin his prospects for a good future but also leave him financially broke. Even after Marguerite convinces Armand’s father (Lionel Barrymore) that she is not after his money, he brings up another obstacle to their relationship – her past. He doesn’t elaborate, but we understand the implication. The question is: Can she give him up so that he can reach his full potential?

Camille is based on Alexandre Dumas’s play “La dame aux camellias” and Zoe Atkins, Frances Marion, and James Hilton did an excellent job adapting it for the silver screen. I like the way their screenplay reveals Marguerite’s true nature to the audience slowly and introduces conflict from unlikely sources. I also appreciated the way it paints the Baron and Armand in a similar light. Neither of them knows Marguerite well before they pursue her. In fact, I’d say that what initially attracts each of them to her is the same. The reason we root for Armand probably has more to do with the way he coats his sentiments with concern for her health than with the maturity of his feelings for her. The truth is that he says he loves her during their first conversation – never a good thing to do - and then he describes the first time he saw her in a way that made me think of him gawking at her from afar through binoculars, similar to the way the Baron first gets a glimpse of her from his seat in Box A at the theatre.

It’s a cliché to say that a film “belongs” to a particular actor or actress, for almost every film is an ensemble piece in one way or another. That said, I must admit: Camille is truly Greta Garbo’s film, and she gives a stunning performance. Critics felt so at the time as well, and Garbo received an Oscar nomination for her performance. She would make only three films after Camille, and in 1955, having made just thirty-two films, she was awarded an honorary Oscar for her “unforgettable screen performances.” I look forward to watching more of them. (on DVD)

4 stars

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