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La Dame aux Camélias, a cinematic story

Alexandre Dumas fils on stage and screen

By Paola Dicelli 11 December 2018

La Dame aux camélias: Manon Lescaut (Myriam Ould-Braham) et Des Grieux (Marc Moreau), Palais Garnier, 2018

La Dame aux Camélias, a cinematic story

Written by Alexandre Dumas fils in 1848, the story of Marguerite Gautier, a courtesan with a tragic destiny, has never ceased to inspire works of art: opera, of course, with Verdi’s La Traviata (1853), plays and films (around twenty adaptations), and even ballets. La Dame aux camélias has often fascinated choreographers and the best known version remains that of John Neumeier. First performed in Stuttgart in 1978, this ballet entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet in 2006 in a production highly faithful to the novel and resolutely cinematic.

“A film script”: it was thus that John Neumeier defined La Dame aux camélias, in an interview given in 2006. The staging of the ballet conserves the analeptic structure of the novel, each work beginning with the auctioning of Marguerite Gautier’s personal possessions, a few days after her death from tuberculosis. Whilst the flashback only appears in Dumas late in the narrative (when the narrator meets Armand, her former lover, and is told his story), Neumeier gets rid of the narrator to leave only the heart-broken lover at the centre of the action. It is he who takes charge of the narrative – his impetuous arrival at the auction even modifies the musical theme by Chopin – and, clutching the dress of his former mistress to his heart, he evokes his meeting with Marguerite Gautier at the Opera.

Paradoxically, most film adaptations of La Dame aux camélias adopt a more linear narrative approach. Gone is the flashback in Ray C. Smallwood’s 1921 film Camille which begins directly at the opera house, where the two main characters meet. At the end, when Marguerite is on her deathbed, the flashback technique is used, but as a means of heightening the melodrama (she reminisces over her happy memories with Armand) rather than for narrative purposes as in the novel or the ballet.    

Moulin Rouge, film de Baz Luhrmann, 2001, avec Nicole Kidman
Moulin Rouge, film de Baz Luhrmann, 2001, avec Nicole Kidman © Twenthies century fox/ Collection Christophel

Under the guise of being only a free adaptation of Dumas’s work, Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, Moulin Rouge, seems closest both to the book and to Neumeier’s staging, particularly in its structure. On this head, the first shot in the film and the opening of the ballet construct their heroes in virtually the same way. Christian in Moulin Rouge and Neumeier’s Armand are weeping over the death of the woman they loved, and it is an object (the dress in the ballet, the typewriter in the film) that plunges them back into the past.

Although the flashbacks are not indispensable to the different adaptations, there are, on the other hand, frequent references to Manon Lescaut. Alexandre Dumas fils even acknowledges the parallel in his work. On rereading the novel by the Abbé Prévost, which he has bought at the auction, the narrator declares: “The sort of comparison drawn between Manon Lescaut and Marguerite drew me unexpectedly to this work, and increased my sense of pity, almost of love for the poor girl to whose legacy I owed this volume.” Indeed, the careers of the two heroines are rather similar, both of them prostitutes who fall in love with an impoverished young man (Des Grieux for Manon, Armand for Marguerite), before suffering an agonising death. Thus, in the film Camille, the courtesan dies hugging the book by the Abbé Prévost to herself, sealing their shared destiny in death.

How then to transpose this literary reference on stage. Not having recourse to close up photography, John Neumeier abandoned the idea of a book, its cover having little visual impact for the spectators.

Camille, film de Ray C. Smallwood, 1921, avec Alla Nazimova et Rudolph Valentino
Camille, film de Ray C. Smallwood, 1921, avec Alla Nazimova et Rudolph Valentino © Collection christophel / RnB © Nazimova Productions

To compensate for its absence, the choreographer lifts Des Grieux and Manon from the novel and offers a skilful mise en abyme through dance: during the second tableau at the Opera, the dancer-characters watch another ballet, that of Manon Lescaut. Whilst in the work of director Ray Smallwood, Camille presses the book to her as she dies, in the ballet, Des Grieux, Manon and Marguerite launch themselves into a final pas de trois, uniting in the same way their fateful ends.

Marguerite’s death, like that of Manon Lescaut, contrasts with the luxurious life she has led, and this is true whatever the adaptation of La Dame aux camellias. In Neumeier, she breathes her last after exhaustedly penning a final note to Armand with only her servant for company. The film, Camille, presents an even more pitiful version, in which her creditors are the only people with her at the end. Finally, even in Moulin Rouge, as Satine performs on stage to thundering applause, she dies behind the curtain in the wings (in Christian’s arms). This, doubtless, was the intention of each adaptation of Dumas the younger: to portray Marguerite Gautier as a heroine who becomes vulnerable as soon as the world deserts her, and whose tragic destiny, even today, profoundly touches our hearts.    

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