Camille was a Bollywood movie made on the other side of the world.
No, really. Everything about it reminds me of 50’s and 60’s Bollywood. Respectable young man falls in love with a courtesan (Pakeezah? Sharafat? Sadhna?). Courtesan returns his love, but is warned off by a relative of the hero’s (Khilona? Pakeezah again?). She figures the hero’s best off without her, and so sets out to make him hate her (Aah? A hundred other Hindi movies?)
Well, you get the idea. But Camille did star Greta Garbo, and that’s enough for me.
Marguerite Gautier (Garbo) is a courtesan in the Paris of 1847: `one of those pretty creatures who lived on the quicksands of popularity ‘. Her modiste Prudence (Laura Hope Crews), is concerned Marguerite will lose her popularity as she ages, and so decides to fix up a protector for her. At the theatre that evening, she sends an invitation on behalf of Marguerite to the wealthy Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell) to come to their box.
Prudence mixes up the boxes at the theatre, and the two women end up sitting in the same box as another courtesan—a loud and catty creature called Olympe (Lenore Ulric).
From amongst the men milling about below, Olympe points out the Baron de Varville. Marguerite, who’s never seen the baron before, glances down and sees someone quite different.
Marguerite’s impressed enough to smile back. During the interval, she happens to meet the young man (Robert Taylor), and assumes he’s the Baron de Varville. He escorts her to her box—now empty—and confesses that he first saw her 18 months earlier, and has been in love with her ever since. He’s very ardent, and Marguerite is charmed, but sceptical.
Prudence arrives with another friend, Gaston (Rex O’Malley). When Marguerite introduces her new-found admirer as the baron, she discovers he isn’t de Varville; instead, his name’s Armand Duval. Marguerite sends Armand off on a fruitless mission to buy her some marrons glacé, and makes her escape—with the Baron de Varville.
Six months later, Marguerite, now the baron’s mistress, is bidding him farewell as he leaves for Russia. Marguerite asks him for money so she can buy a pair of horses at an auction (the reason’s convoluted: the owner was Marguerite’s friend and is now dead; her coachman’s an old man who needs to be cared for, and since he won’t be happy without the horses, Marguerite must buy the horses and get the man with them. Whew! The hooker with the heart of gold).
At the auction, Marguerite runs into an old acquaintance: Armand. She talks to him and invites him for her birthday party the following evening.
Armand is uncomfortable at the party (most of Marguerite’s friends are pretty raucous). But he manages to get some time alone with Marguerite, and convinces her of his ardour. Marguerite breaks up the party so Armand can sneak back later. But before Armand returns, someone else does: the baron. He didn’t go to Russia after all.
The baron’s canny enough to realise Marguerite’s hoodwinking him, but he doesn’t expect love. But Armand does, and when he returns to find the door locked and nobody answering the doorbell, goes away, furious. Shortly after, at his younger sister’s first communion, he meets his father, Monsieur Duval (Lionel Barrymore) and says he intends to go travelling.
Armand is packing when Marguerite arrives at his home, and there’s a breathless, happy reconciliation. Armand asks her to come away with him to the countryside: they’ll be so happy, he says—and Marguerite succumbs.
Marguerite’s drowning in debt, and ends up putting her dignity on the back burner by asking the baron for money. She gets it, but with his contempt—and a slap.
Marguerite, along with her maid Nanine (Jessie Ralph), goes off to the countryside with Armand, and is deliriously happy, even though she’s been ill. They arrange to have the wedding of Marguerite’s friend Nichette (Elizabeth Allan) held at the country house; after the wedding, an emotional Armand asks Marguerite to marry him. He tells her he’ll ask his father for his inheritance. Ah, I can see the storm clouds gather.
The next day, while Armand is in Paris, Monsieur Duval arrives. He tells Marguerite that her past will taint his son’s future, and that Armand’s obsession with her is making him neglect his career, his life—everything. In true Hindi film style (or is it just that Hindi films borrow heavily from Alexandre Dumas Fils?), Monsieur Duval begs Marguerite to let Armand go.
And Marguerite complies. When Armand returns, she tells him she’s given him a summer of love, and that was all she had to give. She can’t do without the luxuries she’s used to (and which Armand can’t afford), and so she’s leaving—to return to the baron.
But does Armand really believe her? Or does he realise this is all a sham? And what about Marguerite’s deteriorating health and mounting debts—is there any solution in sight?
What I liked about this film:
Greta Garbo. This was one of her last films, but she’s still superb: she brings Marguerite—passionate, willful, sensitive, despondent, hopeful—very vividly to life. In my opinion, Camille can be watched just for Garbo: she’s magnificent. (By the way, she got an Oscar nomination for the role; and of all her films, it was her favourite).
Robert Taylor. So jaw-droppingly beautiful, it isn’t funny. Okay, he does give the impression of being a purely ornamental wuss, but hey, a good-looking wuss at that.
What I didn’t like:
The sadness. My mother, after watching Camille, said “It’s not as sad as the book.” Thank you, then; I don’t want to read the book.
The camellias! They’re Marguerite’s favourite flowers—she always wears them—but they’re so patently artificial, it’s awful.
Little bit of trivia:
Robert Taylor later admitted he learnt a lot about acting by just watching Garbo on the sets of Camille. He was quite in awe of her, and she was polite but distant. The director, George Cukor, is supposed to have said this was because Garbo wanted to think of Taylor as the way Armand Duval should’ve been: an ideal young man. If she became friends with Taylor, she might have discovered he was “just another nice kid.”