7 February 2003 | dwingrove
Opulent Visual Feast - Pity About the Colour!
A triumph of the old High Romantic style in French cinema - a style extinguished so brutally by Godard and the New Wave - this Raymond Bernard film of the Alexandre Dumas fils tear-jerker has some of the camp decorative frenzy of a Powell/Pressburger opera, Oh, Rosalinda! or Tales of Hoffmann. Every frame of it overflows with tasselled velvet, Venetian mirrors, plaster figurines and - as was only to be expected - vases of white camellias. As his film's visual climax, Bernard lays on the masked ball to end all masked balls. An orgy of sex, melodrama and delirious design.
Unfortunately for a film of such visual opulence, La Dame aux Camelias was
shot in Gevacolor - an atrocious cheapjack colour process that has faded badly over the years. Even the most lovingly restored print can show us no more than a shadow of what 50s audiences might have seen, let alone of what poor old Bernard intended!
Luckily, the non-visual elements are strong enough to make up for the washed-out colour. Micheline Presle is superbly touching as Marguerite Gautier, the dying courtesan who gets a last chance at love with a younger man. Her performance achieves a fine balance between the florid romanticism of Great Garbo (in George Cukor's 1937 Camille) and the cold-blooded cynicism of Isabelle Huppert (in Mauro Bolognini's 1980 True Story of the Lady of the Camellias). Of the three actresses, only Presle looks even remotely like Dumas' real-life model, the 19th century Paris courtesan Alphonsine du Plessis.
Roland Alexandre is absurdly handsome, if a trifle bland, as her young lover Armand. Far more drama is generated by Bernard's cynical eye for social ironies. Armand's staid father (Gino Cervi) carouses with two ladies of the night, shortly after lecturing poor Marguerite on her morals. A debt collector seizes a gilt mirror out of her hand as she lies dying. It is moments like these that stop La Dame aux Camelias from degenerating into sumptuously designed slush. Moments that not even Gevacolor can ruin!