Friday, February 26, 2010

Film #12: Camille (1936)

Director: George Cukor

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story (in which all plot points, as well as spoilers, are given away freely. Fair warning):

A young courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, seeks a life of leisure in the fantastical setting of early 19th century Paris. Marguerite has come from an agrarian life, but her natural beauty and cutting wit make her the apple of many a gentleman's eye. While seemingly looking for a wealthy man who will simply underwrite her every material desire, she falls in love. Much to her surprise, it is not to a man of great financial means, but rather a young and earnest fellow, Armand Duval. Armand's love for her is so powerful and enduring that Marguerite overlooks his pedestrian means and comes to love him as well.

However, society, including Armand's father, sees the match an unfitting. Believing that Armand's potent love combined Marguerite's expensive tastes and seemingly predatory nature will result in ruining the young man, nearly everyone conspires to convince Marguerite to turn her back on Armand. She reluctantly does so, deceiving Armand into believing that she no longer loves him. Crestfallen, Armand leaves to travel the world. In the meantime, a broken-hearted Marguerite gives herself to a much wealthier, though emotionally cold alternative suitor.

In the end, Marguerite is gripped by a chronic illness that slowly destroys her health. Wishing only to see her one true love again, she waits and hopes on her death bed for Armand's return. He comes at last, and the two lovers re-avow their feelings for one another. Alas, it is too late, as Marguerite succumbs to her illness and dies in Armand's arms.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing & before any research):

Oi. This one took some serious effort to get through. I realize that the term "chick flick" didn't exist in the 1930s, but they should have invented the term when this film came out. While the technical merits are beyond reproof, there was not a whole lot for me to sink my teeth into in this one.

Greta Garbo. I really don't know her work that well, but I realize that she was huge in her day, though the reasons are not immediately apparent to me. There's no question that she was a great actress. And sure, she was good-looking enough, if in a mannish sort of way, but I find Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, and even Fay Wray to have been better lookers. Garbo had a steely, knowing sensuality about her, but I think Stanwyck had more of it and in a more feminine way. My suspicion is that it was these characteristics, combined with the slight Swedish accent that made her such a hit. Maybe one of those "whole being greater than the sum of her parts" kind of thing.

The story of Camille is high trageromance, and it's not like it was hard to see the tragic part coming. Within the first 5 minutes, Marguerite lets out a few subtle coughs. At that point, I could essentially see the whole story unfolding, an hour before it happened. Maybe it's because I recently watched Baby Face, which tells a somewhat similar story about a social climbing gold-digger who finds true love, only to have it end in tragedy (or near-tragedy, in Barbara Stanwyck's case). While Camille actually has the guts to stick with the more upsetting finish, it still lacked the punch that Baby Face had. Maybe this is because Baby Face was grittier and more real to me. Whatever the case, the same story unfolding in Parisian high society was not nearly as interesting.

When I think about it, I feel that this is really my only strong objection - the setting. The characters are rather well-rounded, and the actors play them well. I'm simply not as interested in the machinations of the social elite. For the same reason, I have no interest in seeing movies like Young Victoria. In fact, the only film even close to this type that I like is Dangerous Liaisons. I think the psychological manipulations, back-stabbings, and the presence of Uma Thurman probably explain this exception to my otherwise hard-and-fast dislike for such movies.

Back to Camille. A very minor annoyance was Garbo's head and neck. Weird, I know. Let me explain. When I now think back on this film, my lasting impression is of Garbo's head constantly tilted back, exposing her long neck. Marguerite would become amused, so she would throw her head back and laugh. She would be overcome by passion, so the head would go back in a swoon. Illness. Head back. Consternation. Head back. You get the point. It's an odd thing to notice, and is a little peccadillo on my part, I know. Still, this little visual hiccup is what I've come away with.
Garbo, about to lose nearly lose consciousness. Again. She easily sends the swoon-o-meter into the red as Camille in this picture.

In the end, I would highly recommend this to anyone who's into melodramatic period romances. Fans of Jane Austen would undoubtedly love this one. Alas, Jane Austen is not my cup of tea. I need my love stories to have a touch more adrenaline, such as in Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans; or they have to be insanely fantastic (in the literary sense), like Darren Aronofsy's sci-fi/fantasy film The Fountain. Camille falls outside of those personal parameters, so I will not be watching it again.

Take 2; "Why Film Geeks Love It" (done after some research on the movie):

I guess I wasn't alone in thinking the plot predictable. Here's the original TIME magazine review from '37. Most interesting that the review points how the director, rather than try to change any of the cliches, simply went after them, whole hog. The descriptions of Garbo seem to match my own impressions, as well.

I was actually stunned, though I shouldn't have been, when I saw just how many times this Alexandre Dumas, fils, novel has been adapted to film. It was done in 1909, 1915, 1917, 1921 (with Rudolph Valentino), 1926 and 1984. And these are just the American versions Basically, this tells me that this story was exceptionally well-known at the time, so audiences didn't care about any worn-out plot elements. People go to see Camille for the same reason they go to see Phantom of the Opera on the stage - they know and love the tale and want to see how the performers pull it off. With a good cast, the story is freshened a bit. As said before, the technical merits of the 1936 Camille are outstanding, so I'm not surprised at its success and place in film history, even if I struggled to sit through it.

That's a wrap. 12 shows down. 93 to go.

Coming Soon: Swing Time (1936):

What do you suppose Fred and Ginger are waving at up there? Can't say I'm a fan of musicals, though there are a few that have surprised me. We'll see if this will be another one.