Based on Alexandre Dumas Jr.’s much adapted novel The Lady of the Camellias, Camille (1911) follows Marguerite Gautier (Sarah Bernhardt), a “courtisane” (or high-class prostitute) who falls in love with Armand Duval (Lou Tellegen) and decides to give up her former life to marry him. Armand’s father (Georges Charmeroy?), scandalized by his son’s association with Marguerite, forbids her from seeing him. Marguerite abandons Armand and returns to her old ways, much affected by her loss and in declining health. Time passes and eventually Armand’s father relents. Armand goes to Marguerite, but reaches her just in time to witness her death.
Coming in at not even three reels, the story is obviously condensed greatly. It includes the familiar scenes of the meeting between Marguerite and Armand’s father, of Armand finding the note, the scene at the gambling party, and Marguerite’s death. There’s little linking these vignettes together besides intertitles, but the plot is still comprehensible even going in cold. That said, a working knowledge of the story the film is based on certainly helps to fill in the gaps.
This is the only multi-reel Bernhardt film I’ve seen aside from Queen Elizabeth (1912) and I couldn’t help but mentally compare the two while I was watching. Both films are stagey, but Camille is exceptionally unadventurous. Elizabeth at least varies the angles now and then and does some intercutting between shots to show simultaneous action when not all the characters are on screen together. Camille is all medium-long shots, straight on, and without cuts. Cinematography had progressed beyond that in 1911. I can only assume that they wanted to capture, as faithfully as possible, the experience of seeing Bernhardt perform the play on stage – Marguerite was her most famous role and she was known the world over for it – but from a movie-goer’s perspective, Elizabeth is certainly more exciting to watch.
Bernhardt – “the Divine Sarah” – was regarded as one of the finest actresses that ever lived, but from Camille and the handful of other films I’ve seen of her, that simply doesn’t come through. Honestly, she doesn’t stand out at all in this adaptation. I would say it’s a matter of changing styles in acting, but compare Bernhardt to her only slightly less famous contemporary Eleonora Duse. Watch Duse in Cenera (1916) and tell me she wasn’t a gifted actress.
For someone interested in Bernhardt, of course you’ll want to see Camille, but if you’re just in the mood for a good adaptation of Lady of the Camellias, I’d recommend the 1921 version starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino.
My rating: I don’t like it.
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