This Jean Simmons-Marlon Brando starrer should ideally have been reviewed last fortnight, as a tribute to the beautiful Jean, who passed away on January 22, 2010. But I was in Pondicherry, and the DVD was in Delhi. I’m back home now, and having watched Desirée all over again, am ready to say a final goodbye to Jean (can one ever do that for favourite stars one will continue to watch over and over again, long after they’re gone?)
The year is 1794, the place is Marseille. The young, irrepressibly bubbly Desirée Clary (Jean Simmons) is the youngest member of a wealthy and respectable family of silk merchants. Her mother, her elder brother Etienne (Richard Deacon) and her sister Julie (Elizabeth Sellars) are constantly having to curb Desirée’s exuberance, and are horrified when they learn, from Desirée herself, that she has invited home a young man whom she met and mentally slotted as Julie’s future husband.
The man, a Corsican named Joseph Buonaparte (Cameron Mitchell) arrives the next day with his brother, a young general named Napoleone Buonaparte (Marlon Brando), whom Desirée had cheerfully included in the invite. Napoleone is (of course, we all know!) ambitious to the tips of his boots, and very certain of himself. He is also, to his own surprise, fascinated by the guileless Desirée, whom he labels as having “the happy faculty of saying the first thing that comes into her mind.”
He kisses her in the garden that evening, and Desirée is punch-drunk with infatuation that evening as she begins writing in a diary that her father had once gifted her. This diary becomes an important part of the film: it’s where Desirée records the happenings in her life, her joys and sorrows, and all that’s going on about her.
For now, Desirée and Napoleone are deeply in love—a happy dream that comes to an abrupt end when officers arrive to arrest the young general and take him to Paris. Napoleone manages to sneak off that night to meet Desirée and propose to her (Etienne, who comes by, refuses to let his sister marry the adventurer, but Desirée isn’t listening). When Napoleone leaves, he leaves behind an exultant girl who can hardly wait to be his bride.
But months pass (as we learn from Desirée’s dependable diary), and there’s no sign of Napoleone. Julie is now married to Napoleone’s brother Joseph, and Desirée has been embroidering monograms—Bs—on linen, in anticipation of her own wedding to another Buonaparte.
One day, Joseph and Napoleone’s three sisters happen to come to the silk shop and let fall the news that Napoleon—who has now changed his name to the more Gallic Napoleon Bonaparte—has become very powerful in Paris and is to be seen at every party hosted by Madame Talleyrand.
The impetuous Desirée therefore heads for Paris and Madame Talleyrand’s to haul her recalcitrant fiancé back.
Gatecrashing a high-society party, especially when it’s crowded with the who’s who and you’re a provincial nobody, isn’t the easiest of things. So poor Desirée ends up being stopped at the door and asked whom she’s with. Even as she’s retreating reluctantly down the steps, she bumps into a general, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (Michael Rennie), who’s just coming in. He’s charmed by her plea—“I should like to belong to you”—but when she explains that she only wants him to escort her in, he obliges.
Desirée has a shock in store for her. Napoleon is at Madame Talleyrand’s party, but he’s with Josephine (Merle Oberon, looking—obviously—much older than her usually luminous self in films like The Scarlet Pimpernel or The Divorce of Lady X). Everybody around them is talking of Josephine and Napoleon’s upcoming wedding, and pulling Napoleon’s leg about his marrying Josephine not for her money or her body, but for the political influence she can wield.
Desirée flings her glass of champagne at Josephine’s dress and runs, crying, out of Madame Talleyrand’s mansion, out through the streets and away—until she reaches a bridge, and looking out over the water, gets ready to fling herself off and put an end to her miserable jilted life.
At that moment (in true cinema style!) Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte comes back into the picture—he’d noticed her escape from the Talleyrands’ and has followed her. He stops Desirée and then bundles her into his carriage, where he lets her weep her heart out as they trundle around Paris.
He even goes so far as to tell this apparently naïve and poor country girl that even if it hadn’t been for Josephine, Napoleon wouldn’t have married her—he used to be engaged to a wealthy silk merchant’s sister from Marseille. Desirée doesn’t disillusion Bernadotte, but when he drops her off at the place where she’s staying, and asks to be allowed to visit her later, she refuses. “I’m too short for you, m’sieu,” is her excuse, but Bernadotte realises that she loves Napoleon, Josephine or no.
Fast-forward to 1797, and Desirée is now a fashionable young lady, visiting her sister Julie and her husband Joseph in Rome (where Joseph is ambassador). When Joseph and Julie return to Paris, Desirée accompanies them, and then goes along to a ball hosted by Napoleon. Julie and Joseph are worried about how Desirée will react to seeing her old beau again, but she reassures them—and is composed enough when she meets Napoleon.
She also meets another old acquaintance at the ball: Bernadotte.
Napoleon manages to spirit Desirée away into a secluded room next to the ballroom. When he tries to persuade her to come for a walk in the garden, she goes running back into the ballroom, where Bernadotte rescues her (again!) by taking her out for a ride in his carriage. He proposes to her, and Desirée, after some thought, accepts. When he kisses her, she even admits that it doesn’t matter if she’s too short for him.
Two years later. It’s 1799, and Desirée has given birth to their baby, Oscar. Napoleon and Josephine come to call on the Bernadottes and congratulate them on the birth of their son. The passage of the years has wrought changes in the way this quartet interacts: Bernadotte now openly questions Napoleon’s ambitious and egoistic strategies to rule Europe; and Desirée, who’s long forgiven Josephine for having ‘stolen’ Napoleon, is able to sympathise with Josephine, who longs for a child but is unable to bear one.
A few years later, and it is Desirée who comes to console Josephine when Napoleon divorces her because of her barrenness. Desirée has seen Napoleon become Emperor of France (in a moment of utter self-glorification, he crowns himself at his coronation), and now, when he leaves the woman to whom he owes so much of his political advancement, Desirée is unable to hide her dislike of the man she once loved. As she leaves Josephine, Desirée runs into Napoleon and he tells her of his upcoming wedding to the Hapsburg princess Marie Louise. He tries to kiss Desirée, but she backs off—back to Bernadotte.
And Bernadotte has a surprise in store for her. That night, a trio of messengers arrives from Sweden, with an offer for Bernadotte: an offer of the throne of Sweden. Their king is old and childless, and Sweden needs a ruler who’s an able general, understands Europe and its politics, is dependable—in short, a French marshal. Bernadotte is their choice, and if he agrees, he will go to Sweden as its Crown Prince.
If you know the story of Napoleon and Bernadotte, you’ll more or less know what happens next. But Desirée is comparatively little known (I must admit to not having known about her until I watched this film), and how her life moulds that of these two influential men is what this film’s all about. It isn’t authentic by any means, though it conforms to the broader aspects of history. Not a history lesson. But an enjoyable enough tale.
What I liked about this film:
Jean Simmons, of course.
And Marlon Brando. He is excellent as Bonaparte—ambitious, imperious, selfish… and yet there are moments when the veneer cracks and you can see through into the heart of a man defeated and close to being finally human. Superb acting.
What I didn’t like:
The blink-and-you-miss-it length of some of the scenes. There are several scenes (a little too many, I thought) which are way too short to make much of an impact. For instance, Desirée’s recollection of her tenure in Rome with Julie and Joseph is a mere collage of scenes of Rome, which then switches to Paris. Such short scenes tend to break the flow of the film and don’t even contribute very much to the story—the Rome scene could have been deleted and the voiceover, with Desirée talking of how she stayed with Julie in Rome, shifted to when their carriage is going to the ball in Paris.