Sunday 21 September 2014

Movie Review: Camille (1936)

A turgid, slow-moving melodramatic romance, Camille has aged quite badly, but nevertheless features a dominant Greta Garbo performance.

It's Paris in the 1870s, and rich men cavort with mistresses at the city's swank theatres and parties. Marguerite Gautier (Garbo), also known as Dame Camille, is one of the desirable courtesans, known as fun-loving, free-spending and frequently sick. The modest and passionate Armand Duval (Robert Taylor) falls madly in love with Marguerite, and although she does develop feelings for him, his modest wealth means that he probably cannot afford to sustain her. The stiff Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell) is rich beyond imagination and desires Marguerite as a prize, but she feels nothing for him.

Torn between a man who loves her and a man with money, Marguerite decides to spend the summer with Armand at his modest cottage, and the two fall deeply in love. But Armand's father Monsieur Duval (Lionel Barrymore) intervenes, disrupting their plans and forcing Marguerite to reassess her choices.

An adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas (fils) story La Dame aux Camélias, Camille is heavy on lavish gowns, grand settings, and decadent gatherings where the rich, famous and frivolous gather to drink, gossip, and waste away their lives in the pursuit of shallow pleasure.

But the film is weighed down by an awkward script that features scene after scene -- after scene -- of Marguerite, Armand and the Baron talking, and talking, and talking, about love and commitment (or lack thereof). Director George Cukor does his best, and for the most part this means keeping his cameras trained on Garbo, giving her plenty of close-ups that she exploits to perfection. But the movie all but stands still, and with none of the characters all too likeable or rounded-out in any way beyond their emotional entanglements, there is precious little else to celebrate.

There are a few secondary characters that attempt, usually quite unsuccessfully, to inject noisy comic relief, but the next scene is almost always yet another long-winded two-person conversation about living, loving and dying. Camille slowly but surely withers away, long before all the maudlinism finally comes to a merciful end.

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