The lines that form outside Manhattan’s Film Forum can sometimes be of the kind more associated with rock concerts. In fact, any time there is a screening involving a long-lost film or a special guest speaker, the lines can snake down Houston street and around the corner. On a recent July evening, there was such a queue for a one-night-only showing of Camille, the 1936 film starring Greta Garbo and directed by George Cukor. (It’s based on the book by Alexandre Dumas fils called La Dame aux Camélias — the screening celebrated the new translation of the book published by Penguin Classics.) Before the translator spoke to introduce the film (and read a passage so movingly jugular that it would be a crime to spoil it), author Julie Kavanagh briefly described the life of Marie Duplessis in her new book The Girl Who Loved Camellias, who herself was the inspiration for Garbo’s character and Dumas’ novel. Duplessis, as Garbo makes abundantly clear, is a mistress by profession—a fantastically manipulative courtesan.
The story of Camille is one that has been reenacted, recreated, and mimicked in countless forms: it was the basis for Verdi’s opera La Traviata, as well as ballets, stage productions, and at least a dozen other film adaptations.
Marguerite Gautier (Garbo) is a common woman with a taste for the over-extravagant and a sinister ability to manipulate wealthy men. Although many seem to come in and out of relationships with her almost as quickly as the proverbial revolving door will allow, one suitor seems to have far more sincere intentions than Gautier probably deserves. This much younger man, Armand (Robert Taylor), had already been in love with Marguerite for many months before he happened upon her at the theater one night. Later that evening, she stands him up for a far richer Baron, and months later, locks Aunaud out of her apartment when the Baron mysteriously came back from vacation one evening. In this scene of sadistic irony, Marguerite and the Baron cackle together as the Baron implies that the dearest love of her life might be at the door. Gautier, still laughing, says almost insouciantly that it very well could be the case.
If it’s a story that from the beginning seems all too familiar, it is perhaps also because Gautier is a character many have had the pleasant misfortune of having known in their own lives. She speaks in witty almost-maxims. Garbo delivers these coquettish aphorisms so perfectly that we understand Gautier is a woman who seems wild and sharp, but who has practiced the very same one-liners and believes that premeditation and affectation are the only way to actually be as wild as she appears.
She uses men and women alike, but is thoroughly convinced that she is a sincere human being, and that all along she was doing something far less dark than abusing the fortune of her good friends. Gautier seems more faithful to an arbitrary sense of morality and an intention to do well by her lover than she is to the lover himself, and she will find any excuse to deny both her audience and her lover the slightest satisfaction—we may not wish for the story to end happily, but only for it to end differently.
Garbo herself seemed just as eager to withhold any hint of her life from the public—the actress lived almost as a shut in and avoided photographers and fans as well as she could. She did not act for decades, turned down roles, traveled incognito, and seemed more shaken by fame than enamored with acting. In fact, like Gautier, Garbo was surrounded by those who adored her but with whom she never quite felt at ease, and whom she didn’t really know how to love back.