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Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons star in this semi-fictional, epic costume drama based on Annemarie Selinko's novel. Désirée (Jean Simmons) is young Napoleon's first true love, long before his rise to power. However, he has to decide whether to marry her and sacrifice his career or abandon her. The two lovers go their separate ways, Désirée eventually marrying the King of Sweden and Napoleon marrying Josephine (Merle Oberon), and only meet again when Napoleon is about to decide to go into exile.
Pitched rather over-optimistically by 20th Century Fox as the next Gone with the Wind and starring Marlon Brando as Napoleon and Jean Simmons as his first love, Henry Koster and his collaborators make rather more workmanlike job of Desiree than they did of The Robe the previous year. The film is pretty much forgotten today despite its huge box-office success in 1954 - so huge that it easily overshadowed Brando's other release that year, On the Waterfront (it even got the cover of Time Magazine). Its relative modern obscurity isn't exactly surprising. It's a solid period romantic soap opera rather than an inspired epic, the sweep of history happening offscreen between the main body of the film in drawing rooms, balls and bridges.
Brando only made the film to settle a lawsuit over his walking out on The Egyptian and is outdone in the charisma stakes by Michael Rennie's Bernadotte. It's not the most electrifying screen Napoleon, that's for sure, with Brando seemingly using the part simply to show there was more to him that Stanley Kowalski types with a restrained, underplayed and softly well spoken turn that wears his egomania lightly. Curiously little of the film concerns itself with his brief flirtation with silk merchant's daughter and future queen of Sweden Jean Simmons, through whose eyes his rise and fall is seen, but then in a film that races over key events in pedestrian diary entries ("There's been a battle at Waterloo") or reduces the disastrous Russian campaign to a few shots of flags, drums and flames, it's perhaps more of a surprise how little of a role she has to work with. After the initial romantic disillusionment of youth sets in a third of the way through the film she's reduced to a reluctantly passive observer to history and the great men who drive it rather than a participant until the pair's final reunion.
There's little real chemistry between the two stars, the relationship quickly settling into a combination of resentment and rarer moments of teasing - at least you hope Napoleon is teasing when he tells the beautiful Simmons "The two most outstanding men of our time have been in love with you and you're no real beauty, but you have a way with you." With Desiree settling into a match with her real true love fairly early in the film while Napoleon marries and divorces for power and position, there's never any real romantic tension in their sporadic reunions and the film never manages to find much tension in the great dictator's rise and fall either as everything of consequence happens offscreen and is either recounted by third parties or diary entries. Unfortunately as Napoleon's proto-EU dream of a United States of Europe - "One law, one coinage, one people" - is thwarted and his comeback fails the film winds down rather than builds up so much that when Napoleon says "Well, gentlemen, I'm ready for exile," you're almost relieved that it's not long before he's St. Helena bound.
Much of the blame can be laid at Daniel Taradash's screenplay, which seems to have been written with budget limitations foremost in his mind - no battles, no crowd scenes, nothing more elaborate than the odd ball - and which never really ventures out of its rarefied circle of charmed lives. While it's more than a little doubtful that the real Napoleon ever described his critics as chuckleheads, Taradash does manage to slip in the odd bon mot as well as throwing in a nod to the lucrative Napoleon merchandising and souvenirs business of the day that at least hints at the Little Corporal's Superstar status in his day, as well as one amusing bit of bickering with his troublesome relatives at the rehearsal for his coronation (the latter staged, naturellement, as a pastiche of Jacques-Louis David's famous painting). Henry Koster's direction is more problematic: he's fine with the actors but, far more than in The Robe, seems at a loss at quite what to do with the CinemaScope format here, often reducing history's great moments to static tableauxs or 18th century police line-ups ("Just take you time and tell us if you recognise the man who invaded Spain"). Only in Napoleon's formal divorce from Josephine (Merle Oberon) does he really seem to break away from the proscenium arch staging and remember he's making a movie where the way the camera moves can be used to project the emotion of a scene rather than its simple geography.
It doesn't get much help from a very atypical Alex North score with none of his usual savagery, torment or innovation: under conductor Lionel Newman's baton it sounds like the kind of thing any studio composer of the day could have produced. Indeed, the love theme itself was originally written by Alfred Newman for Five Fingers, leaving North little room for experimentation until a standout cue when Desiree is confronted by the intimidatingly grim portraits of the Swedish royal family.
All of which makes it sound like Desiree is a terrible film. Yet somehow, despite the uninvolving stretches and lack of a compelling love story, it manages to just about work as a glossy CinemaScope costumer. It may reduce its central characters to the fairly mundane, but it's not without old-school entertainment value, and Twilight Time's limited edition region-free Blu-ray release boasts an exceptionally good transfer with far more detail than you'd expect considering how troublesome the early CinemaScope lenses could be. Though there's been some criticism of the color, it's an entirely accurate reflection of the limitations of the somewhat muted original Deluxe process the studio used instead of the more vivid Technicolor. The disc also includes an isolated score, original trailer and booklet.Read more ›
This Blu-ray is advertised as region free but will not play on my Blu-ray player,so I assume it must be a region 1 disc as it is imported from the USA.Having said that it does play on the Playstation 3.As for the movie I found it overlong and boring ,not worth the Blu-ray price.
I remember seeing this film in the movie theatre when I was growing up....always found it fascinating. Love costume dramas and Jean Simmons....Brando was much better than I remembered. Terrific movie. After seeing this movie again, I started reading the book "DESIREE".......I wanted to know more about this fascinating creature.