Woman-Centric Movie Review: “Desiree”

Happy early Friday, Persephoneers! Aren’t short work weeks fun, even though they sometimes mean more work in less time because of that Monday we missed? Regardless of whether or not your week was easy peasy or the week from hell, here’s a little something to help you get your mind off that and get ready for the weekend.

Movie poster from the film.

Today’s classic movie pick is one of my all-time favorites, and it is based on a book as well. “Desiree,” made in 1954 and based on the book of the same name by Annemarie Selinko, tells the story of young Desiree Clary. Desiree (Jean Simmons) is a silk merchant’s daughter living in Marseilles in late 1794 when she meets two soldiers from Corsica and impulsively invites them to her house to visit. These two young men are no other than the brothers Joseph and Napoleon Bonaparte, and they have come to France to make their fortunes in the beginnings of Directory France. Soon enough, Joseph Bonaparte becomes engaged to Desiree’s sister, Julie, despite their older brother’s reservations about the Bonaparte family. Desiree herself falls in love with Napoleon (Marlon Brando), and he with her, but she also knows that the brothers’ affections are based not only on love, but on the large dowries both sisters would bring them.

Jean Simmons as Desiree.

The brothers return to Paris, and soon Desiree hears that Napoleon has been arrested. After he is released and the charges are dropped, Napoleon returns to Marseilles to see Desiree before reporting to duty in Paris. He asks Desiree to marry him, and she lends him some money to help him out while he is in Paris. While Desiree waits in Marseilles for Bonaparte, dutifully preparing for their wedding, she hears rumors from Napoleon’s sisters that he has been seen in the Paris salons with Josephine de Beauharnais (Merle Oberon), and she goes to Paris to see whether or not this is true. She sees Napoleon with Josephine at Theresia Tallien’s salon, and she is heartbroken to learn that Napoleon has broken their engagement to marry Josephine.

The real Desiree Clary, queen of Sweden.

But Desiree won’t fade quietly into history: She meets General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (Michael Rennie) at Madame Tallien’s salon, and when they meet again a few years later, they fall in love and eventually marry. As Napoleon rises to power in Europe, so does Desiree’s fortune, and while she has her own place in history, it is very strange to see how her fate intertwined with the man who abandoned her for another woman and who repeats the same pattern when he divorces Josephine to marry Marie Louise of Austria. In the end, she sees how dangerous his ambition can be, because just as no woman will stand in the way of his carving out a place in history and leaving a legacy, so no other army or country could oppose him, either. Even if he may have loved her, it was because at that point in time, she was useful to him, and he was pragmatic enough to extinguish his feelings for her once he found something better.

General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who has escorted Desiree into the salon, introduces her to Madame Taliien.

Simmons plays almost the same ingenue role as she did in “Young Bess,” and we see her grow from an idealistic young girl into a woman who eventually comes into her own and sees the people around her for who they really are. If you don’t know the story of the romance between Desiree and Bonaparte, you’ll be touched at how romantic it is, but he says the right thing just a little too often, and he makes no secret about how calculating he can be. This role is a little different from Marlon Brando’s earlier tough-guy roles in that he plays someone who might not be physically intimidating but who has the intelligence and the drive to go for what he wants. He isn’t the motorcycle gang leader or the dock worker, but the soldier who has vision and charisma and who knows how to lead and how to draw others into following him. Brando’s Napoleon is outwardly very composed and controlled, as though his mind is always going, and he knows he must keep a tight hold of his emotions so that they don’t cloud his judgment. There are some moments in which we see the facade crack a little bit, but on the whole, he is committed to that vision and that dream.

Jean Simmons as Desiree.

Merle Oberon’s Josephine captures everything you would picture the empress as being: charming, witty, clever, and as kind as possible to those around her. Of course, Josephine is a favorite historical figure of mine, so I am very biased in her favor…and not in the favor of the scheming, grasping Bonaparte sisters, who are played to perfection.

A still from the movie: Marlon Brando as Napoloen and Jean Simmons as Desiree.

As I have mentioned, this film is based on the book Desiree by Annemarie Selinko and is available in both paperback and e-book format. So once again – quite inadvertently, now that I think about it – we have a movie and book that ties into actual history. So we get the romance and life story of Desiree and the chance to say to Bonaparte while watching the film or movie, “Bonaparte, you are a dick.” Because think about it: he did a lot of asshole things, which basically makes him a dick. And like all dicks everywhere, he finally got what was coming to him in the end.

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