blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Désirée (1954, Henry Koster)

With some notable omissions (paramours, they’re French, after all), Désirée is shockingly historically accurate. Napoleon really did have an ex-girlfriend named Désirée, who ended up the queen of Sweden, her husband his former general and then adversary. The film gets big and little details right. On its face, Désirée is just a resplendent CinemaScope melodrama. The costumes are gorgeous, the sets are grandiose, the performances are… well, more on the performances in a bit.

Jean Simmons plays Désirée. She does well aging up over the years, though the film’s makeup and hair designers roll back some of the aging in the third act. Not just for Simmons but everyone (except Marlon Brando). Simmons starts the film as a young woman—no longer a child or something to that effect—who happens to meet a man and invite him over to meet her sister, played by Elizabeth Sellers. The man is Joseph Bonaparte (played by Cameron Mitchell, who works his ass off in the background part). He brings along his brother, Napoleon (Brando). The brothers pair off with the sisters, Mitchell and Sellers, Brando and Simmons.

At this point, Napoleon’s a success, but not enough of one anyone’s listening to his ideas. The film tracks Napoleon’s story through Simmons’s informed, nearby perspective, which seems like a narrative device but, again, is actual history. Obviously, the better story is more focused on Simmons and Désirée, but it’s a CinemaScope melodrama. Brando eventually throws Simmons over for Josephine (Merle Oberon, who’s great in a glorified cameo), and Simmons ends up with general Michael Rennie. Rennie’s pretty sure Simmons spends her life in love with Brando, which provides a real subtext to their relationship as things get complicated first by Brando’s rise to power, then Rennie’s move to Sweden in opposition to him.

Most of the history comes through in Simmons’s diary entries (the film’s based on Annemarie Selinko’s historical fiction novel done as the real Désirée diary), and the second half of the film is just a series of quick, sometimes fun, sometimes not scenes. Simmons and Rennie have chemistry, Oberon and Simmons have chemistry (Simmons can have kids with her French general, Oberon can’t with hers), and then Sellers and Mitchell, every once in a while, show up and provide all this character. There’s also a whole movie in Simmons and Seller’s older brother and guardian (an uncredited Richard Deacon) bickering with the Bonaparte sisters; not sure of the historical accuracy of that bit.

While Brando and Simmons get the top billing, followed by Oberon and Rennie, it’s really Simmons’s picture. Brando should get an above-the-title “and” credit after Rennie. Every time Brando shows up in his fake nose and pound of make-up, he’s done like one portrait of the actual Napoleon or another. Director Koster shoots him in medium and long shots, sometimes to show off the sets, which is both good and bad. The bad is when they’re the wanting exterior sets, and the shots are framed to fit the set decoration exactly. Again, CinemaScope melodrama.

In his first scene with Simmons, Brando brings some intensity. It’s also the only scene where he’s shot in anything near close-up. The only other intensity he’ll bring later is rapey; he’s always trying to get Simmons alone, regardless of their spouses. It’s not a good performance from Brando. He’s got no insight into the character, either as written (Daniel Taradash’s script does give him some material, too, Brando just ignores it) or historically. Instead, Brando lets the make-up do the acting. And whatever Koster and cinematographer Milton R. Krasner do to make Brando seem shorter. Is it forced perspective, is it heels, or did they hire lots of taller people? Rennie was 6’4”, Brando was 5’9”, Simmons was 5’6”.


Simmons is solid in the lead. However, she doesn’t really get a character arc because her destiny (get it) is tied to Brando. Rennie’s okay too. Brando’s not incompetent, just not good or interesting. He’s got nothing to say with the performance.

The production’s decent, though Alex North’s music is a little flat. Koster’s a bland visual director, but he’s got his moments with the actors and some of the staging.

Besides wasting Brando as Napoleon, Désirée is a perfectly reasonable and surprisingly historical CinemaScope melodrama.

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