Desiree (1954)

HENRY KOSTER

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5

USA, 1954.   Screenplay by , based on the book by .   Cinematography by .   Produced by .   Music by .   Production Design by , .   Costume Design by , .    Film Editing by .  

Films about Napoleon Bonaparte have always met with difficulty, either troubled in getting made or finding an audience upon release. This one tries to avoid this curse by making Napoleon the supporting performance in a film that actually focuses on his jilted fiancée, the Desiree of the title, using the historical fiction novel by Annemarie Selinko as the foundation from which a glorious Technicolor melodrama is born.

Marseille teenager Desiree () happens to meet the Bonaparte brothers while working in her late silk manufacturer father’s shop, and invites them home for dinner. Her family finds her behaviour shocking, getting so friendly with strangers so quickly, but the Corsican brothers soon smooth things over when Joseph marries Desiree’s sister Julie while General Napoleon ( in a prosthetic nose) asks for her hand before leaving for Paris. She follows him there and finds that he has forgotten her in favour of a more advantageous match with the widow Josephine de Beauharnais (), which Desiree takes deeply to heart until the noble General Bernadotte () gives her a shoulder to cry on and she marries him instead.

She never regrets the decision, one of the loveliest aspects of this mostly fanciful story, growing to love and respect her husband while Napoleon rises in glory to the leadership of France, eventually crowned Emperor while Desiree attends Josephine’s train during the regal procession. Her husband, however, is the Thomas More to the Emperor’s indulgent ways, and when Bernadotte is offered the position of heir to the Swedish throne, he accepts the honor for many reasons including the opportunity to get away from a perilous situation at home.

Desiree tries but struggles to fit in to the Swedish court, where she frustrates the sitting Queen with her refusal to learn the ways of Great Ladydom, while Napoleon’s fortune changes and, following his defeat in Russia, he comes to Desiree to make amends for the past before he is sent into exile on the island of Elba.

Every shot of this tasteful-to-the-point-of-tasteless melodrama overwhelms you with aesthetic beauty, the richness of the sets and costumes is not to be believed and the colours are so deeply borne out by cinematographer Milton R. Krasner that it’s almost as if the celluloid were dipped in blood. Sadly, that’s the most lively aspect of it, for other than Simmons’ spunkiness and Oberon’s few moments as a woman glorified as quickly as she is abandoned, there’s no personality standing out among the ornately wrought furniture on screen. It’s hard to even remember Brando’s presence in a character written with so little life, and none of the romantic affairs presented have any notable passion to them.

For such an outright dud, however, it’s surprisingly watchable, in part thanks to how well Desiree herself is written and performed, but in retrospect a film like Lola Montes is so much more memorable in its many flaws than this one is in its very few triumphs.

Academy Award Nominations: Best Art Direction-Colour; Best Costume Design-Colour

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