6 March 2011 | Lejink
Greta the great...
Sumptuous Golden Age weepie starring the divine Garbo cast slightly improbably as a, shall we say, mature, but consumptive courtesan caught in a love triangle with cold-hearted moneybags Lord De Varville and poor impressionable young thing Armand.
In the end the consumption wins but the build up to the tragedy is high-quality costume melodrama with Garbo in captivating form as the epicentre of scandal in high society France - there are lots of mesdames and monsieurs but scarcely a Gallic accent in sight. Director Cukor doesn't overdo the focus on Garbo, preferring to film her in double portraits, most usually with Robert Taylor as the ardent Armand but it's her you'll be drawn to. Hardly sylph-like and certainly not a conventional beauty she acts beautifully and for the most part convinces you of her power to captivate men at a hundred paces. She gives her not altogether pleasant character depth and profundity by injecting emotion and humanity into her performance, even coaxing out what looks like a real teardrop after one of her emotional farewells with her young lover.
The supporting characters are well written and played from Camille's so-called society friends who by the end are raiding her handbag for money as she lies expiring on her death-bed, while Lionel Barrymore impresses in a sensitive scene as Armand's father persuading her to give up her love for his son. Taylor plays the callow youth with vigour while Henry Daniell is suitably reptilian as the controlling sugar daddy.
The sets and costumery are excellent and director Cukor confidently moves his actors around the scenery, contrasting the vain-glorious narcissism and decadence of the idle rich with the simple-hearted devotion of Camille's housekeeper and close friends.
Of course the language is all very flowery and sometimes wearing on the ears, but it doesn't take long to become engaged with the film and, yes, care about the characters. New rivals were emerging in Hollywood to compete with Garbo as the top female star on the block, like Hepburn, Davis and of course, from nearer her own era, Deitrich, but here, on top of her game, Garbo still sends out a catch-me-if-you-can dare to these and others.