The 1954 historical-biographical film Désirée was directed by Henry Koster and produced by Julian Blaustein from a screenplay by Daniel Taradash, based on the best-selling novel Désirée by Annemarie Selinko. Along with Merle Oberon as Joséphine de Beauharnais, it also stars Marlon Brando as Napoleon Bonaparte and Jean Simmons as Désirée Clary.
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In this, not so true biography it seems that Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise and fall is attributed to his relationship with a noblewoman named Desirée (Jean Simmons ). The film gives a chronological view of Napoleon’s life and shows his love for a woman he wanted to marry, but spurned to focus on his career.
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Art Direction (color) (Lyle Wheeler, Leland Fuller, Walter M. Scott, Paul S. Fox) and Costume Design (Rene Hubert and Charles LeMaire).
In 1794, in Marseille, Désirée Clary (Jean Simmons) makes the acquaintance of a Corsican named Joseph Bonaparte (Cameron Mitchell) and invites him and his brother, General Napoleon Bonaparte (Marlon Brando), to call upon the family the following day. The next day, Julie (Elizabeth Sellars), Désirée’s sister, and Joseph are immediately attracted to each other, and Napoleon is taken with Désirée. He admits to her that the poor Bonaparte brothers need the rich dowries of the Clary sisters. Later, Désirée learns that Napoleon has been arrested and taken to Paris.
Napoleon eventually returns to Marseille, tells Désirée that he has been cleared of all charges, but has been ordered to track down royalists in Paris. Désirée begs Napoleon to leave the Army and join her brother in business, but he scoffs at the idea and instead proposes marriage. Désirée accepts and lends Napoleon the money to return to Paris.
Napoleon tells her that he will always love her and will return soon for their wedding, but, as the months’ pass, Désirée starts doubting him and goes to the city where she meets General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (Michael Rennie). She learns that Napoleon is engaged to the wealthy Joséphine de Beauharnais (Merle Oberon). Désirée contemplates suicide, but Bernadotte, who has fallen in love with her, stops her.
Desiree lives with her sister and Joseph Bonaparte and soon marries Bernadotte in Rome, but soon returns to Paris. She is now married to Bernadotte and they are happy together. It’s obvious that Bonaparte is still infatuated with Desire and wants to have an affair with her, but Desiree will have none of it. She is friends with Josephine and she knows that even though Napoleon married Josephine for her money and still loves her, she is repulsed by this and refuses him.
By July 4, 1799, Désirée and Bernadotte have happily settled into married life and have a son, Oscar (Nicholas Koster). On November 9, 1799, Napoleon is proclaimed First Consul of the French Republic and asks Bernadotte to join his council of state, and Bernadotte agrees.
Several years later, Napoleon is proclaimed emperor, and at his coronation, he takes the crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII and crowns himself.
Then years later, Napoleon divorces Josephine because he very much wants an heir. He marries Marie Louise of Austria (Violet Rensing). Desire is not happy with his divorce and takes Josephine’s side in the dispute.The film goes on with Napoleon’s life and emphasizes how he continues his infatuation with Desiree. But, also he and Bernadotte are on opposite sides of opinion on how the politics of France are going. Therefore, because of this and Napoleon’s interests in his wife, Bernadotte breaks with him.
Bernadotte has been given an offer by Sweden to be adopted by the King and thus, become heir to the throne. Désirée is not happy with his decision to take up the offer. She knows that she doesn’t have the personality to be a queen, especially in the traditional court of Sweden. Nonetheless, Bernadotte convinces her to go along with him.
Once in Sweden, to Désirée, it’s very evident as well as to the Court that she is out of place in the royal household and asks to go back to Paris.
Eight months later and now living in Paris Désirée attends a ball where Napoleon shows off his new son. When Désirée speaks with Napoleon, he makes threats about Sweden’s alliance with Russia and announces to the crowd that she will be held hostage to ensure Sweden’s support while his army marches through Russia to Moscow.
Napoleon’s army is defeated in Russia and he is put in exile to Elba which doesn’t last long. After the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon retreats with his personal army to the Château de Malmaison. Representatives of the allied armies ask Désirée to speak with Napoleon, hoping that she can persuade him to surrender. Napoleon agrees to speak with Désirée alone and muses on what his destiny would have been if he had married her. Napoleon proclaims that he has given his life to protect France, but Désirée gently tells him that he must do as France asks and go into exile on St. Helena. Commenting on how strange it is that the two most outstanding men of their time had fallen in love with her, Napoleon gives Désirée his sword in surrender and assures her that her dowry was not the only reason that he proposed to her many years ago in Marseille.
sources of info: Wikipedia.com
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Listen to film’s lovely score
I first watched this film when I was a teenager on an old black & white TV and as a young girl, I loved it. Melodramatic it is, but I still like it because it brings back memories of the happiness I had watching old movies. I was fascinated with all the wide-screen films made by 20th Century Fox in the 1950’s. Even though I was watching on an old TV and didn’t really get the full benefit of their beauty, I was enthralled.
There’s no doubt that this film is a “fluff piece” and so is the book by Annmarie Selinko, but I loved both very much. My romantic girly side was amused and delighted. I also enjoyed Jean Simmons who is radiant as Désirée and I thought that while Marlon Brando probably didn’t like this film much, he sure made a great Napoleon.
Merle Oberon played a secondary role in the story as Josephine since it was mostly about the life of Désirée, but Oberon plays the role very sympathetically and is at her most beautiful as the Queen of France. She made this rather unsympathetic character likable and you found yourself rooting for her. I agreed with Désirée that she was used by Napoleon as a pawn in his master chess game.
While this is in no way a must-see film, it is a treasure for its opulence and spectacle. For those viewing it when it first came out in 1954, I’m sure it was something they remember well. It was beautiful to watch such lovely people playing their parts in spectacular wide-screen CinemaScope.
It was directed by Henry Koster who was a specialist with CinemaScope. He directed many other CinemaScope films for 20th Century Fox like the first film done in this widescreen format, The Robe, (1953) as well as A Man Called Peter (1955), The Virgin Queen (1955) and many more.
I recommend seeing Désirée just for it’s shere beauty and enjoyment.
Some photos courtesy of “DoctorMacro”