When I saw ”Camille” last year for the first time I was very much put off by it. Frankly I was not looking forward to see it again and it has been staring at me from the DVD shelf for a while now.
In several cases going back for a second viewing completely changed my view of a movie, so I tried to convince myself to approach “Camille” with an open mind. Maybe subconsciously I had just vilified this film over time and seeing it again would put the picture right.
It was set right, all right, but not to the benefit of the film. If anything I think it is even worse than I remember. In fact the agony it was causing me required me to chop it up in 20 minutes chunks to get through it. I think I am finally done with “Camille”.
I am now left with the task of rationalizing what it is that is so horrible about this film and I find that it is not one essential item, but an entire horror cabinet of issues. In no particular order I will try listing them below.
Of course my impression may be colored by the fact that I am hardly the target group of this film and it was both made and take place in ages of different values and attitudes, but I have seen enough costume dramas to recognize that it is not just that.
First of all I do not like the story and the characters in it. We are to sympathize with a courtesan (which is just an almost invisible step up from prostitute) whose life objective it is to catch a wealthy client and make him marry her. To me that sounds like a conning scheme.
In this particularly case the courtesan (Greta Garbo as Marguerite Gautier) is an excessive spender of sickly health and fickle loyalties so you may say that she has the work cut out for her. Not an attractive card in the first place and add to that the reputation of courtesans and we are basically talking “Pretty Woman”, 1847. Nevertheless she gets two generous offers, one that can supply her wealth and one that can supply her love and she manages to mess it all up and loose both. I do not mind that it is a tragedy, but I am inclined to think it is a tragedy that she lived long enough to cause the havoc she did. I doubt that was the intention.
Her suitors are not particularly likable, but at least I can sympathize with their frustrations. Take Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell). I know he is an unloving character, but he is surprisingly generous towards her, both economically and in taking her back after repeatedly cheating on him. No wonder he is deeply suspicious of her. The wonder is that he has not given her up entirely. Armand Duvall (Robert Taylor), as the second suitor is called, is a starry eyed fool who is hanging his entire career and life on the fickle whims of a courtesan. He may come about as a romantic hero, but really, what is he doing in the realm of gold-digging courtesans? And with a courtesan of such an excessive budget that he would never be able to afford her. His father (Lionel Barrymore) was right. Gautier is ruin and destruction for him, but he is obsessing like a moth around a flame, just waiting for the inevitable burn.
The courtesan environment is genuinely annoying. It is presented as being as gaudy and posh as a Versaille court of the 18th century, yet it is played out as a bunch of hillbillies in carnival costumes. Really, this looks more like Texas than Paris mid-nineteenth century. I was struggling to find sympathetic characters and failed.
Then we have Greta Garbo. Oh, she is wonderful. I have seen lots of good stuff with her, but this is not one of those. Why why why have they made a strong, empowered woman like Garbo play a fickly and vain courtesan? It rings so hollow that at times it is like watching a hippo in a bowling game. To hear all that bull crap coming out of a person as strong, willful and intelligent as Garbo is just painful. I have a box set with 6 of her films and all of them; “Queen Christina”, “Anna Karenina”, “Ninotchka”, “Mata Hari” and “Anna Christie” features a strong woman except for “Camille”. Just look at her for crying out loud. Even in all her gauche and silk she looks like someone who could make the proudest person whither and wimper and not NOT like a little silly girl who spends too much money and cannot find out which of her suitors to pick. I know women’s situation in mid-nineteen century was not particularly liberated but a Garbo character would take action and be resourceful and not lay down to fade away out of heartbreak. For that they should simply have found a different actress.
“Camille” is a film of obvious manipulation. It creates the story with the sole purpose to make the romantically inclined wail in heartbreak. A chic-flick characteristic as I ever knew one. I am a sensitive type, I feel the pain of the characters, but when it is as engineered as this it leaves me entirely cold. I may simply be of the wrong gender, but I really cannot be moved by this. Instead I just feel disgust with the manipulation and annoyance with characters that go out of their way to cause romantic drama. I guess this is melodrama in its worst meaning.
There was a scene near the end I actually liked. Olympe (Lenore Ulric ), one of the courtesans, enters a party in another one of the enormous and deeply impractical outfits they keep wearing on every occasion in this film. However this time Gaston (Rex O'Malley), calls out the ridiculousness of the dress with its bird and nest and asks if anyone wants an omelet.
I would prefer the omelet to spending time with these idiots.