Based on the 1848 novel, La dame aux camélias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils, Mauro Bolognini’s La storia vera della signora dalle camelie (The Lady of the Camelias, 1981) is one of those unusual productions that brought together a number of staggering international talents — including performers like a young Isabelle Huppert, Gian Maria Volontè, and Bruno Ganz, as well as composer Ennio Morricone — but seems to have been forgotten by contemporary audiences and neglected in terms of home video release. This French-Italian coproduction feels far more Italian than French, thanks to the influence of director Bolognini, Morricone’s score, use of the Italian language in the film (both Huppert and Ganz are dubbed), and dazzlingly beautiful cinematography from Ennio Guarnieri, who worked with everyone from Elio Petri and Marco Ferreri to Fellini, Radley Metzger, Pasolini, De Sica, and Franco Zeffirelli, among others.

While there have been numerous theatrical, operatic, ballet, and filmic adaptations of La dame aux camélias, Bolognini took a different tack: he attempt to include more biographical details about Alphonsine Plessis, the real-life courtesan who was Dumas’s lover for a time and inspired his novel. Thus, the film follows the young Alphonsine (Huppert), who is sold with her permission by her kindly, but drug-addled father (Volontè) to an older, wealthy man who is besotted with her. When she attracts the attention of a priest — who seduces her and then kills himself — they flee to Paris, where they separate when he sells her, once again, to a rogue candy salesman. Breaking out on her own in the city, she transforms herself from a lowly seamstress by day and prostitute by night to a courtesan sought after by seemingly all of Frencharistocratic society, with few obstacles from her absent husband, the Count de Perregaux (Ganz). A brief, but intense affair with the young writer Alexandre Dumas (son of the more famous author of Les Trois Mousquetaires) speeds her towards her tragic death from tuberculosis, though he immortalizes her life in his novel.

Bolognini’s film included two elements that were different from earlier adaptations. To begin with, it was one of the first to present a variation of the titular Lady completely nude, featuring a young Huppert in all her diminutive glory in several scenes. Secondly, he wove together elements of the novel with Plessis’s life in a loosely nonlinear fashion, occasionally interjecting scenes of her impending death and the grief felt by Perregaux and Dumas (the latter played by Italian actor Fabrizio Bentivoglio in one of his earliest roles). The social climb of a prostitute was hardly scandalous subject matter for early ‘80s cinema and it is perhaps Bolognini’s penchant for restraint, painterly shots, and social pageantry — rather than sexual exploitation, emotional frenzy, or violence — that have resulted in the film being more or less forgotten despite its beauty and subdued sense of melancholy.

It could also simply be a case of oversaturation: La dame aux camélias has become one of the staples of melodrama and tragic romance since the 1850s thanks to the popularity of Dumas’s novel, and art and literature have seen no shortage of this type of character: a woman damned by her determination to be free. In addition to Dumas’s work — and the historical example of writer George Sand, who married an aristocrat and then did as she pleased, including dressing as a man, smoking cigars, supporting herself as a writer, and having numerous affairs — there are numerous examples of nineteenth century literature that focused on characters who were prostitutes or fallen women: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1859), Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877), Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), Zola’s Nana (1880), Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), and Wedekind’s “Lulu” plays (1895 and 1904) to name some of the more famous and influential titles.

In the mid to late nineteenth century, the social climate in Europe was changing drastically, which resulted in an absolute deluge of literature and artwork that examined the subversive theme of women’s sexuality with a particular focus on figures like the whore, the flaneuse, the consumptive, and the vamp. A connection was made between sex, art, social freedoms, and these rebellious, destructive feminine types; for example, Baudelaire wrote, “What is art? Prostitution.” Many cities — but particularly Paris — were seen as dens of vice and dancers, prostitutes from all walks of life, opium addicts, gamblers, criminals, and impoverished artists all belonged to the same social circle (as they also had, to a different degree, in Caravaggio’s Renaissance). The bodies and lives of prostitutes increasingly became fodder for artwork of every kind and Dumas’s Marguerite, the protagonist of La dame aux camélias, was something of the ultimate symbol of this figure.

Marguerite — and by extension, Bolognini’s Alphonsine — represents the tension that emerged, particularly during times of social upheaval, when women sought sexual and financial liberty but had limited options. In the worst case scenario, as is depicted in much fin de siecle art, the feminine became demonized by men and made a radical transition from virginal, passive housewife into the “vamp” that would go on to haunt silent cinema. Bram Dijkstra wrote,

The virgin and the whore, the saint and the vampire — two designations for a single dualistic opposition: that of woman as man’s exclusive and forever pliable private property, on the one hand, and her transformation, upon her denial of man’s ownership rights to her, into a polyandrous predator indiscriminately lusting after man’s seminal essence, on the other.”

Dumas is kind to his Marguerite, but there is no happy ending for his defiant whore, despite the fact that she is somewhat absolved by her genuine love for the protagonists of La dame aux camélias. Alphonsine, similarly, has a real love for both her husband and Dumas’s character in the film, but she admits freely to both of them that she has her needs and they must be met. She is not coy, coquettish, or manipulative. She tells Dumas without guile that he can become her lover if he submits to her unquestioningly, gives her complete freedom, and allows her to remain a courtesan, so that she can continue living in a manner that symbolizes freedom, even paradise, to her. She tells him, “I love this infernal life.”

La storia vera della signora dalle camelie is, in this sense, a deeply pessimistic film and it’s clear that from a young age, Alphonsine has resigned herself to an early death. A key scene in the opening act of the film merges together these themes of femininity, sex, and death: in a panicked state, she shows her father (at the home of her first older lover) blood on the bedsheets and, in the absence of a maternal figure, he explains menstruation to her. But it is unclear if Alphonsine has bled on the sheets because she has gotten her period for the first time, bled on the sheets because she lost her virginity, or bled on the sheets because she has been coughing up blood from the tuberculosis that remains unnamed but is an obvious presence within the film.

The theme of the consumptive as a sacrificial figure was a major component of later nineteenth century art and in addition to its appearance in literature, appeared throughout paintings like Alfred-Philippe Roll’s “Sick Woman,” Frank Dicksee’s “The Crisis,” and Leopold Romanach’s “The Convalescent,” among many more. The art and literature of the day was quite simply overwhelmed with depressed, sickly, lifeless, and dying women. Dijkstra wrote,

The cultural apotheosis of the consumptive sublime […] represented the socially ritualized acceptance by the middle-class woman of the prevailing concept that she must transfer the essence of her well-being, symbolically her ‘jewel,’ the fragile lily of her virtue, to her chosen mate to help revivify his moral energies.”

But Bolognini doesn’t present Alphonsine as a passive sacrificial figure; she may be resigned to her doom, but she is quietly defiant and allows neither romantic attachment nor financial stability to give the men of the film any control over her. Huppert, who would go on to play a number of increasingly violent, transgressive, and remarkable protagonists, might seem curiously subdued here. This somewhat echoes her role in other films from this period: for example in another period piece and literary biographical adaptation, Les soeurs Brontë (1979), she is a powerful visual presence but has limited dialogue or dramatic weight compared to costars Isabelle Adjani and Marie-France Pisier; in Loulou (1980), she leaves behind a husband and comfortable bourgeois life to become the girlfriend of an unemployed thug (played by a young Depardieu), who she willingly supports financially and with a quiet sort of determination.

Huppert’s demure and seemingly innocent qualities in La storia vera della signora dalle camelie are affectingly deceptive; she has a knowing quality about her even when her father sells her as a teenager, or when the priest seduces her and then kills himself. His sudden death by hanging is shocking to her — it occurs in the same room where she has been sleeping — but the fact that he can’t help giving in to physical lust appears to be no surprise at all. Curiously, it is these unconventional relationships that are given the most romantic weight in the film. Alphonsine’s relationship with her father — Volontè at his most sly and even smarmy — has a decidedly incestuous angle. With undisguised enthusiasm, she reveals that she has spied on him having sex and the two kiss each other on the lips passionately several times throughout the film. Though they are parted, he returns to her as her “manservant,” a label he appears to have chosen for himself, recalling a similar relationship that the female protagonist has with her tramp father in Wedekind’s “Lulu” plays.

The scene with the priest is by far the film’s most overtly erotic, despite his sudden suicide. When they first encounter each other, she comes to mass as if dressed as a bride, wearing a lacy white dress and a wreath of red flowers on her head. While this causes the other women in the church to loudly scorn her, the priest takes her under his wing, obviously enchanted, and insists that he will help free her from her plight in the morning; he watches her eat and tells her to stay the night. He reads to her from the Hebrew bible’s startlingly romantic, sensual “Song of Songs” (also known as the “Song of Solomon”), an ode to sexual love between a bride and groom. He recites specific lines like “honey drips from your lips, you have honey and milk under your tongue.” One early verse, part of which he reads to her, emphasizes the erotic nature of this verse and his desire for to her:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine;
your anointing oils are fragrant;
your name is oil poured out;
therefore virgins love you.
Draw me after you; let us run.
The king has brought me into his chambers.

A refrain of the “Song of Songs” is the line “I am sick with love,” which is a central theme of La storia vera della signora dalle camelie. While Alphonsine herself is dying from consumption, this has been interpreted by both nineteenth century and contemporary critics as a metaphor for syphilis; her disease seems distinctly sexual in nature. But it also speaks to the theme of amour fou that defines so many of the illicit romantic relationships in nineteenth century literature: Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina end with the female protagonists’ suicide as the only way to resolve an affair, for instance. This theme was also relatively prominent in European arthouse cinema in the mid ‘70s and ‘80s. For example, in 1975, Walerian Borowczyk directed an adaptation of Stefan Zeromski’s nineteenth century novel Story of Sin, where the female protagonist disgraces herself when she becomes obsessed with an unfaithful lover and dies in an act of desperate sacrifice at the film’s conclusion. Roman Polanski directed a particularly lush adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1979’s Tess) where the titular heroine commits a murder to restore her honor and is executed at the story’s conclusion, after she has reunited with her husband.

Bolognini was something of a specialist in both period pieces and romantic melodramas; his most famous work is arguably the Marcello Mastroianni vehicle Il bell’Antonio (1960), which was one of his collaborations with the great Pier Paolo Pasolini (when Pasolini was working primarily as a writer and hadn’t fully launched his own directorial career). Later titles like Fatti di gente perbene (1974) with Catherine Deneuve and Giancarlo Giannini and L’eredità Ferramonti (1976) with Dominique Sanda and Fabio Testi, are largely centered on themes of amour fou, while he would go on to explore more nineteenth century literary adaptations with Volontè in the following year’s miniseries version of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma (La certosa di Parma). I am admittedly an unabashed fan of arthouse literary adaptations, as well as melodrama, but Bolognini’s rich, satisfying work deserves critical and popular reexamination, particularly considering the fact that he worked with many of Europe’s greatest actors from the period (as well as a scriptwriter like Jean Aurenche of the same year’s Coup de torchon) and explored amour fou with such style and restraint. Unlike many of the more overwrought adaptations of La dame aux camélias (including Verdi’s opera La traviata), Bolognini’s film remains intelligent and pessimistic. It resonates less as a tragic romance and far more as the story of a woman’s determination to enjoy the taste of hedonism and liberty — bound up inextricably together in the Sadeian sense — like so much honey and milk under her tongue, even as she is aware they’re poisoning her.