I’ve never seen a Greta Garbo film before, so I watched this 1937 romantic tearjerker which, according to the internet, is a strong contender for her best movie.
Camille is based on La Dame aux Camélias, the 1848 novel/play by Alexandre Dumas (confusingly not Alexandre Dumas of The Three Musketeers fame, but rather his son with the same name). Verdi wrote La Traviata based upon the play; in turn, the famous opera and its tragic love story was an inspiration for Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. I vaguely remember watching a French version of La Dame aux Camélias with young Isabelle Huppert ages ago, but by all accounts this movie, directed by George Cukor, is considered to be the definitive adaptation.
Greta Garbo plays Marguerite Gautier, a glittering Parisian courtesan who rises above her humble origins to become the toast of town. When she meets Armand (Robert Taylor), a handsome and naive young man of no great fortune, she must choose between the one good man who genuinely loves her, and the fabulously wealthy, cold-hearted baron (Henry Daniell) who can support her lavish lifestyle. Meanwhile, a seemingly casual cough in a handkerchief hints on Marguerite’s failing health, and the fact that her days may be numbered.
The movie is an unabashedly sweeping romantic melodrama of Hollywood’s Golden Age, wittily scripted and splendidly produced with lavish costumes and interiors. It’s always fascinating to watch a movie from an era when film stars were treated as glamorous gods and goddesses far removed from the everyday life; Garbo’s aloof beauty and mystique could hardly have translated to the modern age.
Her performance here is widely hailed as her greatest dramatic role, and it’s easy to see why. Garbo owns the movie playing a complicated heroine whose world-weary cynicism gives way to self-sacrificing love; the story might be pure soap opera but Garbo sells the hell out of her emotional scenes. Her beautiful, exquisite face, famously described as having no bad side and and no bad angles, and her low, Swedish-accented husky voice are just absolutely magnetic in every scene. She’s a star the likes of which are impossible to imagine nowadays.
Robert Taylor is suitably gorgeous and charming as Armand, even if the character can’t help but be a teensy bit dull. Luckily there’s a lot of fun to be had with the supporting cast who portray Marguerite’s fellow denizens of the Parisian demi-monde: sometimes kind and loyal, sometimes malicious, gossiping and back-stabbing, but always up for some high-kicking fun and partying.