US, 1954, 110 minutes, Colour.
Jean Simmons, Marlon Brando, Merle Oberon, Michael Rennie, Cameron Mitchell, Elizabeth Sellars, Cathleen Nesbitt. Isobel Elsom.
Directed by Henry Koster.
Desiree is a lavish Cinemascope version of a popular novel of the '50s by Anne-Marie? Selinko. It was in the form of the diaries of Desiree Clary, who was once engaged to Napoleon, whose sister (played by Elizabeth Sellars) married Joseph Bonaparte (Cameron Mitchell) and who encountered Napoleon every so often at crisis points during his career. She married General Bernadotte, who was appointed by Napoleon as King of Sweden - she found it difficult there but remained eventually faithful to Bernadotte and was asked to receive Napoleon's sword in surrender.
The film's production design is lavish - decor and costumes being the emphasis rather than the dramatic military highlights of Napoleon’s career. These are alluded to and sometimes seen in collage (for example the retreat from Moscow). The film thus becomes an edgy romantic affair - with set pieces as balls. drawing rooms, coronations. The dialogue by Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) tends to be of the soap opera variety.
Jean Simmons is very attractive in the central role. Merle Oberon makes an impression as a dignified Josephine. Michael Rennie is a very upright Bernadotte. The main interest was in Marlon Brando as Napoleon. It is a mixed odd performance - sometimes dashing, sometimes narcissistic. Brando uses the British-type accent he was to use in Mutiny on the Bounty and Burn. There are moments - but it sometimes seems evident that Brando was not particularly interested in the role. Direction is by Henry Koster, a director of a variety of films
including the first Cinemascope feature The Robe.
1. The popularity of this kind of colourful costume romance in the '50s, later? Its value as entertainment? As memoir? Historical record?
2. The production qualities: wide screen, sets. decor and costumes? An atmosphere of pageantry? The set pieces e.g. Napoleon's coronation and its rehearsal. battle sequences? The technical flair in the presentation? The musical score?
3. The popularity in Hollywood of the historical romantic melodrama? The ways of communicating the atmosphere of period. place? The Marsellaise for the French Revolution etc.? The introduction of historical characters and re-creating their dialogue? Credible or not? Exploration of motivations for well-known historical events? The sweep over years and decades of history? Satisfying for this kind of romantic entertainment?
4. The transition from a book of Desiree's diaries to a portrait of Desiree and Napoleon? The device of Desiree recording things in her diary? Her perspective on the period, on France, on Napoleon and his career, on Sweden? How 'accurate' is the screenplay? How contrived?
5. The focus on Desiree as a young girl - Jean Simmons' vitality and charm? Her work in the shop at Marseilles? Her family and its protectiveness? Julie and the attraction towards the soldiers in Marseilles? Julie and the attraction towards Joseph Bonaparte? The marriage? Desiree's encounter with Napoleon? Her falling in love - the romantic walks and scenes? His promise? Her living the romance? Her breaking through conventions? Going to Paris? Her being lost in the city, the introduction to the Salon, the discovery that Napoleon was engaged to Josephine, her flinging the champagne glass? The attraction of General Bernadotte? His saving her from throwing herself from the bridge? Her disappearance? Caught up in the entourage of Joseph and Julie? The return to France? The new encounter with Bernadotte and his discovering her identity? Her reactions to Napoleon - and his infatuation? Her friendship with Josephine? Josephine's delight and sadness at the birth of her child? The preparations for the coronation, the rehearsals, her place at the coronation? The battles and Napoleon's success? Failures? Bernadotte's being transferred to Sweden? Desiree's fidelity? The snow and the conditions in Sweden, the court and the traditions, her inability to remain there? Her bursting into meetings etc.? The return to Paris? The fresh encounter with Napoleon - after the retreat from Moscow? Napoleon's defeat, imprisonment? Desiree's finally going to him and surrendering and his surrendering his sword? An interesting portrait of a girl caught up in great events?
6. The portrait of Napoleon - his background, the importance of the family, Joseph and the other brothers and their later getting positions of power in Europe, the squabbling and jealous sisters? His presence in Marseilles, the shop, the attraction towards Desiree, romance, promises? His arrest? His later being commissioned? His ambition - and the Salon sequence with Josephine and the champagne glass? His rise to power? Indications of his military ability? His preparations for coronation - the pageantry of the sequence and his crowning himself? His disappointment in not having an heir? The time passing and the annulment of his marriage to Josephine, his rejection of her (and Desiree's sympathy)? Napoleon's harsh attitude towards Josephine and her buying more dresses etc.? Getting rid of Bernadotte, Bernadotte's decision to be independent? His wanting him in his battles? The ambitions in Europe, in Russia, the defeat? imprisonment and escape, the Battle of Waterloo? His secret visits to Desiree? His final isolation and surrender? The controversies concerning Marlon Brando's interpretation?
7. General Bernadotte as an upright soldier? His gallantry towards Desiree, his infatuation with her, marriage? The happiness of their marriage? His awareness of Napoleon and his attraction for Desiree? His decision to go to Sweden? The political details and his arrival, acceptance by the court, his attention to details in Sweden? His understanding of the people and the country? His becoming King? Motivation for Desiree, his son? Allowing Desiree to return? The final reconciliation?
8. The sketch of Josephine and Merle Oberon's presence and beauty? At the Salon? The background? Marriage to Napoleon? The coronation? Her inability to have a child - and her explanation of this? The annulment and her grief, Desiree's support?
9. The sketch of such characters as Joseph Bonaparte and his wife? Madame Bonaparte, the sisters? Talleyrand and other French dignitaries of the time?
10. The film's attention to socialising, salons, balls? Coronations and rehearsals? The domestic contrasts of Marseilles and Paris? Of Sweden and tradition and France?
11. Popular themes of romance? Politics? History?