Adapted from the novel La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas (fils), Camille's story is a story for the ages that continues to be re-adapted and re-invented to this day -- think Moulin Rouge. Needless to say, the plot of the film is about Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo), a high-end courtesan who falls in love with Armand Duval (Robert Taylor) -- a man financially below her requirements for her suitors. However, being the big spender that she is, she has to find another way to balance her debts and ever-increasing expenses. So, she seduces the Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell) to keep her, forming a tense rivalry between her two lovers. Over time, Marguerite begins to realize how fickle money is and how much more important love truly is, though by then it may just be too late.
I'm in love with this film. Probably one of the best and saddest love stories committed to celluloid. While the cinematography is rich with the lush costumes and dream-like photography, it is the performers that really give the film its magical touch. Camille contains humor, romance and tragedy, skirting around melodrama but never falling into territory that would devalue its themes. The actors find a way to balance their performances and juggle the many themes. Nothing in their act falls flat. You laugh with them and cry with them. Laura Hope Crews (Aunt Pittypat from Gone With The Wind) has never been better. Her character serves as Camille's madam and is the most hysterical character in the entire film. She endeared me throughout the picture; yet, by the end, her character made a complete reversal and became one of the most repulsive in the film just by her actions alone. All of the laughter she provided further drives home the fact that she does not contain much substance beyond that. It's a shocking revelation. Lenore Ulric as Camille's rival is also quite comedic in her role. She gives her performance enough depth to show that Lenore is really not an archetypal villain. She can have fun too, but she is extremely self-centered and only has her best interests at heart. Yet the character is never irritating.
Robert Taylor does a nice job as Armand, though his naivete does at times become exasperating. In comparing his performance to Ewan McGregor's in Moulin Rouge, I find that Taylor comes out the victor as far as grounding his performance in reality is concerned. Then again, Baz Luhrmann is not exactly known for conforming to reality. Greta Garbo though is undoubtedly the best performer in the entire film. Her screen presence is unquestionable, but her acting prowess should be given more notice. The scene at the end of the film where her character is bedridden and mourning her poor decisions had me in near tears. The emotions that cross her pristine face are far too humane for us not to be able to connect and relate to them. We feel for her character. Being that this was only my second Garbo film after Queen Christina, I thought for sure that she was going to have the same boyish aura that she had in the earlier film. I was pleasantly surprised to see how down-to-earth she played Marguerite, and how ultimately tragic that makes the ending since her character felt so real. I fell in love with the film, but now am also enamored of Greta Garbo. Her legend and mystique have now almost eclipsed her talents. That's a damn shame. The woman could act her heart and soul out!
Camille is a beautiful film in all aspects. Every principal actor gets to shine, even if it's only towards the end that their screen time increases. I don't believe I've ever seen a film use that technique before. A character you first thought of as only minor then gains more prominence towards the end. It just shows you who your real friends really are and who will rise to the occasion when you've hit rock bottom. Indeed, the actors make this film, but the story further fleshes them out and resonates with an audience, hence its longevity.