I have a large pink camellia by the back door and it’s just blooming now – two months late, like everything else this year: the astonishing cold has prolonged the snowdrops for a record four months’ flowering. Camellias tend to flourish outside kitchen doors and utility rooms: for all their exotic beauty they are tough creatures and enjoy hot fumey wafts from central heating vents, washing machine drainage and Agas. They flowered like mad in clouds of steam in a grim little patch of dirt under the bathroom windows at school; coming from the hills of Asia they are cold and frost resistant but dearly love a little heat where they can find it.
Their apparently romantic name is a bit of a disappointment – they are simply called after their European discoverer, the Jesuit botanist George Kamel, and the leaves of the species camellia sinensis brews up for tea. The camellia japonica is a practical beauty: how apt that Dumas should have chosen it as the emblem of the dying courtesan Marguerite Gautier, the grande horizontale up from the country who knows how to catch a swarm of bees and graze a cow. Inevitable that Garbo should take the part on film in 1936: the tall, rather ungainly Swede who began her career in a Stockholm barber shop, counted the sugar lumps in her larder, and chose her five Renoir canvases to match the carpets had a atavistic affinity with the role.
Supposedly a favourite movie of both Hitler¤ and Mme Mao*, Camille is a asphyxiation of studio-bound artifice right from the Valentine card lace of the titles and the cardboard Paris florists of the opening scene. Garbo’s paper camellias crackle and rustle on the soundtrack as she tucks them into her décolletage and woven-in ringlets. She is the only member of the cast who reacts spontaneously, seeming (as always on film) strangely detached from the strenuous acting of her colleagues though amiably humouring them: she chuckles a lot in the first half of the film – in character to be sure, but maybe also amused by the monkey antics of the rest of the MGM prestige troupe.
The stylised look of the camellia – the white cut-out petals, the dark shiny foliage like a child’s drawing of leaves – is visually perfect on film. The nature of the flower is richly symbolic: showy but unscented (fragrance was later bred into certain species) it is a perfect incarnation of a lady of the demi-monde – a creature of showy perfect loveliness but without a heart or human feelings. Camellias are not meant to be picked, when you pluck them they bruise, the petals unravel: take them indoors and they wither and die. You cannot hold them captive any more you can a butterfly or polar bear. Alphonsine Duplessis, the girl upon whose tragic career Dumas based the novel, carried bouquets of camellias to advertise availability: white when free, red when not. This conceit was too much for Hollywood; for Garbo, they are presented more as a floral comfort blanket, an accessory to Adrian’s gorgeous crinolines and those unbecoming hats, too fussy for that wonderful angular face of planes.
Maybe, too, cinema-goers fancied that Garbo was bathed in a fragrance of camellias. Those few scents based on the plant that I recall have picked up the tea leaf note – they’ve been verdant, woody; a fragrance of stems and stalks and sap. Bronnley did one with a bath line; Chanel, a delicious limited edition in the 1990’s, which lasted just long enough for everyone to fall in love with it – and then died. For warm springs and hot summers try Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier‘s Eau de Camellia Chinois – the crispness of camellia sinensis wrapped in cool dark banana leaves and served with ice. Dazzling, refreshing, green and sweet.
The kind of fresh clean fragrance that Garbo herself, a fancier of crisp uncomplicated colognes, might have enjoyed.
¤ Hitler asked Garbo to meet him for one of his famous teas, an invitation which was declined. Later she is claimed to have regretted this, saying she should have taken a revolver with her and shot him.
* A former actress, Mme Mao wore her personal print of Camille literally to a shadow. When it was found after her downfall only a few flickers on celluloid remained. The Sound of Music had received similar treatment.
Image of Garbo and Taylor from garboforever.com, Image of Camellia by Lemon Wedge