Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Greta Garbo retrospective - CAMILLE (1936)

CAMILLE is one of the many adaptations of Dumas Fils La Dame Aux Cameilias - the story that became La Boheme, Rent and Moulin Rouge. This version is directed by legendary Hollywood director George Cukor (THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, MY FAIR LADY) and stars Greta Garbo as the beautiful prostitute, Margeurite aka Camille. She is kept by a wealthy baron, but because of a mix-up, turns her attention to the dashing Armand Duval (Robert Taylor - QUO VADIS) and falls in love with him. She gives up her luxurious life to be with him, but after a harsh pragmatic conversation with Armand's father, (Lionel Barrymore - IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE), decides to abandon Armand. She knows he might follow her, but decides to sacrifice their love to save him from a life with a courtesan, and one dying of tuberculosis no less. Initially angry and disaffected, eventually Armand pursues her and comes to realise her self-sacrifice. Finally, she dies of tuberculosis in his arms, after one of the most affecting and legendary scenes of romantic declaration in the history of cinema.

The movie feels lush and romantic at every level - it's every inch an Irving G Thalberg production from the glory days of MGM. The interiors are rich and detailed, the countryside setting beautiful, and Greta Garbo's sumptuous gowns by Adrian (THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) make Garbo look even more stunningly beautiful than usual. Her hard beauty is perfectly suited to playing the woman in love whom life has taught to be practical nonetheless. When she finally melts, it's all the more moving for knowing the real risks she faces in compromising her profession. Has there ever been an actress who could portray such nuanced and conflicting emotion, barely uttering a word? And when she speaks, the dialogue might seem soupy on the page, but my goodness, it gets a little dusty in the theatre in those final scenes.

CAMILLE is one of those rare things - a romantic tragedy that never feels manipulative or melodramatic - that has the sheen of a melodrama but communicates a genuine chemistry between the leads and makes us believe in their love. It is for that reason that this seventy year old film of an eighteenth century love story still feels fresh and still moves us.

CAMILLE was released in 1937. Garbo was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar but lost to Luise Rainer in THE GOOD EARTH.

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