© James Travers 2012
Even for those who are staunch admirers of the work of playwright and filmmaker Sacha Guitry Le Destin fabuleux de Désirée Clary presents something of a paradox, being one of his most inconsequential films and also one of his most subversive. It was made in 1942 at the time of the Nazi occupation of France and it represents Guitry’s most blatant attempt to defy German censorship and ridicule Nazi Germany. The film was itself an act of defiance - to avoid being drafted in to make films for the German-run company Continental, Guitry invented the fiction that he was already contracted to another production company. Having told the lie, Guitry was of course obliged to follow through and make the film, for producer Edouard Harispuru. That film was Le Destin fabuleux de Désirée Clary, an irreverent historical romp in the same vein as the director’s earlier Remontons les Champs-Élysées (1938).
Even though Guitry went to great lengths to make the film appear harmless (it is the most overtly vaudevillian of his historical films), he ran into difficulties with the censors and it was only with the backing of the Swedish royal family that he was able to get the go-ahead for the film to be made. Even so, the film has an easily detectable anti-German slant (evidenced by the far from flattering portrayal of the Prussians) and, whilst it may be cloaked in flippancy, its nationalistic pulse can be felt, as resilient as the undying heartbeat in Marcel Carné’s Les Visiteurs du soir, released just a few months later.
Sacha Guitry’s allegiances during the occupation were ambiguous, to say the least. Whilst some of his work during this period can be interpreted as a gesture of defiance against the Nazis, there is also plenty of evidence to show that Guitry was a staunch supporter of Maréchal Pétain. His ambitious historical tome De Jeanne d’Arc à Philippe Pétain and its promotional film of the same title leaves little doubt over Guitry’s admiration for Pétain and his political naivety. After the Liberation, Guitry was arrested and thrown into prison for a period of sixty days for alleged collaborationist activity. Even though he was later acquitted of the charge of collaboration, Guitry’s reputation would remain tainted for the rest of his life and this is the main reason why he is far less well regarded today in France than many other great French filmmakers.
Le Destin fabuleux de Désirée Clary is in many respects a dry run for Guitry’s best known and most commercially successful film, Napoléon (1955). It adopts the two part structure of this later film, representing the early and latter phases of Bonaparte’s career, with two different actors playing the young and old Napoléon. Here, Guitry (with his characteristic modesty) takes on the role of the older Napoléon, after Jean-Louis Barrault has graciously handed over the part to him at the film’s mid-point. The younger Désirée Clary is played by Geneviève de Séréville, Guitry’s fourth wife, and the older version is brought to life by Gaby Morlay, one of the biggest stars of French cinema at the time, renowned for playing the female lead in populist melodramas such as Le Voile bleu (1942).
Whilst it is far less digestible than Guitry’s subsequent gambols through the pages of French history - Si Versailles m’était conté (1954), Napoléon (1955) and Si Paris nous était conté (1956) - Le Destin fabuleux de Désirée Clary impresses with its high production standards and some completely unexpected bursts of whimsy. Guitry’s relentless voiceover narration does become monotonous after a while but the abundance of acting talent on the screen makes up for this (just). The film’s most inspired touch is a short interlude at the halfway stage, where Guitry abruptly breaks off the narrative and, for no reason, starts to pay tribute to his cast and crew. Having introduced us to the cinematographer, set designer, sound engineer and other unsung heroes, Guitry promptly brings up the end credits and leaves you wondering: (a) just where the film is going to go next (a Terry Gilliam animation seeming the most likely bet), and (b) whether its director has completely taken leave of his senses and/or imbibed just one crate too many of absinthe.
Tragically, this lunatic post-modern digression ends before we properly have time to digest it and it’s back to the perfumed palaces of early 19th century France for a second helping of veiled Nazi bashing. If Sacha Guitry had been able to sustain the eccentricity and shock value of his mid-film excursion into madness, Le Destin fabuleux de Désirée Clary would doubtless be far better remembered than it is. As it is, the film is little more than a footnote in Guitry’s illustrious career, its main claim to fame being that it inspired the title of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film, Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain. If Guitry’s film fails to satiate your interest in Désirée Clary, you can always watch Henry Koster’s Désirée (1954), a colourful adaptation of Annemarie Selinko’s faux autobiography starring Jean Simmons as Clary and Marlon Brando as - who else? - Napoléon Bonaparte. Neither film succeeds in doing its subject justice, but Guitry’s at least has the virtue of not taking itself too seriously. Gaby Morlay’s reaction when she discovers she is to become the Queen of Sweden is something to behold - you’d think someone had just thrown her pet poodle into a pool of piranhas.