Set in 19th century France, George Cukor’s grandaddy of all tearjerkers stars the great Greta Garbo as Marguerite, a self-centred Parisian courtesan whose extravagant lifestyle far outweighs her modest purse. Thanks to her seductive looks and carefree attitude however Marguerite is able to charm the francs right out of their owners’ pockets while giving very little in return. But when she finds herself the focus of a passionate triangle her usual aloof attitude comes back to pierce her right through the heart. On the one hand is the austere but fabulously wealthy Baron de Varville who regards Marguerite as a cherished object to be owned; on the other is Armand, heir to a modest estate who practically worships her yet has very little to offer financially. Shifting her attentions between the Baron’s cool stability and the uncertainty of Armand’s ardent embraces, Marguerite’s predicament is made all the more complicated by the knowledge she only has a very short time to live thanks to an unnamed illness that is slowly draining her of life and vitality. When she finally does decide between love and security will it be too late? When discussing the enduring quality of Cukor’s paean to amour fou (based on the novel by Dumas) one can certainly cite the lavish sets and costumes, the lush musical score, and the evocative cinematography that goes from boudoir intimacies to grand ballroom fêtes. And despite the draconian dictates of the Hays code which was firmly entrenched at the time, there is a muted eroticism to the ongoing sexual politics whether it be a series of playful kisses or an urgent hug—in one telling scene Marguerite’s innocent birthday party swiftly transforms into a full-blown bacchanal. But it is Garbo’s magnificent performance that makes it all work. She doesn’t so much speak her lines as play with them, toying with the audience even as she toys with her onscreen suitors. Her portrayal of a woman of leisure frightened by the prospect of unconditional love as she faces her impending mortality would be so much overblown melodrama in the hands of a lesser artist—Garbo inhabits the part and makes us believe right up to that final heartbreaking close-up. This is what a movie star looks like.
Cukor’s direction is as drolly sparkling as ever in this adaptation of Camille that adds (when compared to the silent version) much appreciated layers of complexity to the Marguerite character. Garbo was made for a role like this with her tragically haunted soul never more visible through her facade of beauty and nonchalance.
Not a bad film, especially considering how relatively early in the silent era it was made, there still isn’t a lot that stands out about it. Its biggest problems are that there doesn't seem to be much reason for Armand to like Maguerite, and that the death bed scenes at the end occupy far too much of the movie.
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