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Desirée at the Dahesh Museum of Art, with Brando as Napoleon
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Desirée at the Dahesh Museum of Art, with Brando as Napoleon

- In the Galleries/Backstage with the Filmmakers

Dahesh Museum of Art
580 Madison Avenue
NYC, NY 10022
(See a Review of Dahesh Napoleon Exhibit)
(See Other Dahesh Film Reviews)

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
December 17, 2006

Desirée (1954) Directed by Henry Koster, Written by Annemarie Selinko (book) and Daniel Taradash, Starring Marlon Brando as Napoleon Bonaparte, Jean Simmons as Desirée Clary, Merle Oberon as Empress Josephine, Michael Rennie as Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, Cameron Mitchell as Joseph Bonaparte, Elizabeth Sellars as Julie, Charlotte Austin as Paulette Bonaparte, Cathleen Nesbitt as Mme. Bonaparte, Evelyn Varden as Marie, Isobel Elsom as Mme. Clary, John Hoyt as Talleyrand, and Alan Napier as Despreaux.

What a brilliant decision for the Dahesh Museum of Art to present, in conjunction with its “Napoleon on the Nile” exhibit, this two-hour Cinemascope film, Desirée, about an early romance between a merchant’s daughter (Jean Simmons as Desirée) and General Napoleon (Marlon Brando), soon to be Emperor. This early romance becomes a lifelong romance, although kept below the public eye, as Napoleon rejects the innocent and ingénue Desirée for the stately and commanding Josephine (Merle Oberon). Desirée goes on to marry Napoleon’s rival, General Bernadotte (Michael Rennie), and, when Bernadotte is adopted by the heir-less King of Sweden, Bernadotte becomes King, with Desirée his new Queen of Sweden, an unhappy Parisian soul to the core. Napoleon rejects the “barren” Josephine, and Desirée rejects Sweden. She has continued a “proper” friendship with Napoleon through the years, and re-encounters him in Paris, teaches him to dance, and, eventually persuades him to renounce his sword and wars and to be exiled to St. Helena. Daniel Taradesh’s screenplay is based on a novel of the same name, by Annemarie Selinko.

This film is considered a costume drama, and there are lush courtly scenes, the most memorable being Napoleon’s self-coronation as Emperor, as he seizes the crown from the Pope. The costumes and ceremonies for this coronation are detailed and dramatic. There is an especially noteworthy segment, in which Desirée wears the gown of her choice (not Napoleon’s request of sky blue) and does not walk holding the regal train of material. There is an earlier, lush scene, of note, when Desirée almost throws herself into the Seine, just before her rescue by General Bernadotte, whom, she decides, would be too tall for her, as a suitor. As it happens, Bernadotte, although tall, pursues her endlessly and persistently, and, indeed, becomes her husband and father to his heir. Napoleon seems to pursue Desirée, only when she is securely in the company of or in marriage with Bernadotte. His desire is beyond his reach. In fact, this short, stocky man, with a pasted forehead curl, tight military clothes, sword, and seething sneer, wants foreign land, military warfare, and world-wide fame. He gets all three, but he does not get Desirée, and, eventually, loses all, for the sake of those, who anointed him with incredible power.

Marlon Brando, as the firebrand, Napoleon, knows how to understate his desire, while over-stating his determination. This performance is quintessentially magnetic Brando about the quintessentially magnetic Napoleon, and I wish there were more current films about this historical persona. Jean Simmons, as the conflicted Desirée, fits extremely well to the costume and period setting, with beautiful gowns and sophisticated demeanor. Merle Oberon, as the unrequited Josephine, had hormones that literally seared the screen. Michael Rennie, as the devoted husband-King, was statuesque, steady, and sexy. There was an especially fine performance, as well, by Cameron Mitchell, as Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, who was wed to Desirée’s sister. There may have been a gray blending of fact and fiction, throughout the action, and there was a definite paucity of authentic, or actual French accents, let alone those evoking the Swedish language. American films set in Europe, and/or with non-English speaking characters, should have, at least, near-native accents, to be credible and gripping. However, this captivating film kept me riveted, although I did long for one real kiss goodbye between Napoleon and Desirée.

Check the Dahesh Museum of Art’s Calendar of Events for current and upcoming films and performances, and, before you leave the Museum, be sure to have tea or lunch at Café Opaline, upstairs, an elegant setting with upscale dining, overlooking Madison Avenue. Also, as you leave the Museum, you will walk through its fine and fascinating gift shop, with gifts for friends and for yourself, from all over the globe.

Director, Henry Koster, 1954
Photo courtesy of Dahesh Museum of Art

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