movie log: Camille (1921)

Watched January 27, 2009: Camille starring Alla Nazimova (aka simply “Nazimova”) and Rudolph Valentino.

There are probably spoilers here, but I can’t imagine they will affect anyone’s appreciation of this story (whether this version or any other). Nevertheless, there’s the warning.

This is the story of a Parisian high-society courtesan Margeurite Gautier (Nazimova) whose hopes for salvation end tragically. Margeurite (called Camille or The Lady of the Camelias after a flower, one that reflects her health or vice versa) is ill: morally and physically. She’s wracked with consumption, and she gives her affections only for money – at least until young student Armand (Valentino) comes along. Armand is the only one who notices her physical illness and who cares for her. They fall in love, while curiously reading a story (shown in the movie via imagined scenes with themselves inserted into the story) of a couple from the past that seem to represent their own lives. Her future is bright: she’ll get well in the country air and sunshine, and will leave her immoral ways behind. But no: Armand’s father catches wind of the relationship and pays a visit to Camille, convincing her that she will only do Armand harm if she stays with him. So she leaves a note for Armand telling him that she’s had her fun with him and is returning to Paris.

Her wicked ways catch up with her. The illness returns. As she lies on her deathbed the creditors begin carting away her possessions, all but the book Armand gave her. She leaves an inscription for him, and he arrives just after her death to learn that she loved him after all.

This is kind of a mish-mash of a movie, with good parts and bad. The bad include an abundance of overacting (or perhaps even bizarro acting) and ludicrous depiction of what goes on when the party moves from the dance hall to the courtesan’s apartment. The good include some of the tender countryside scenes and, in particular, the scene where Armand’s father confronts Camille. Of note (neither good nor bad) are the arty set decorations, e.g. of Camille’s apartment and at least one party setting – they look like something out of a surrealist painting. (The movie opens with a card saying that the story has been updated for modern times- I suppose that’s part of what they meant. I can’t help but mention here a fascinating wall-sized circular window in Camille’s bedroom, roughly 5 feet in diameter. A slider within the wall opens and closes the viewport at the touch of a button, as quickly as a Star Wars doorway. I’d like one of those.) There are a lot of allegorical devices: the story-with-the-story, the fact that it always seems to be raining, snowing, or dark as a backdrop to the party life, while the simple life is in sunshine; the correspondence between Camille’s physical health and her moral choices; the flower that is healthy when she is. Valentino has very little to do, it’s hard to see from this (and from other Valentino movies of the period) how he shot to fame.

I guess the bottom line is: a simple tragic story, acting all over the map from bizarre to good, surrealistic sets, and a lot of layers (even if none of them go very deep). Some if not all of those things make it memorable, and maybe that’s enough.