Judge Clark Douglas tends to look best in CinemaScope.
Based on the best-selling historical novel.
"A crown princess does not fall asleep in public!"
Facts of the Case
Désirée Clary (Jean Simmons, The Egyptian) is a wealthy French girl who is eager to find the love of her life. In no time at all, she's become close with a handsome, ambitious young French general named Napoleon Bonaparte (Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire). The two quickly become engaged, and Désirée waits patiently for her future husband as he is away in business in Paris. Months later, she receives a piece of startling news: Napoleon is engaged to the wealthy, well-connected Josephine de Beauharnais (Merle Oberon, The Dark Angel)! Désirée is distraught and contemplates suicide, but is rescued by the tender General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (Michael Rennie, The Day the Earth Stood Still). So begins the story of Désirée's complicated life as the go-between of powerful political leaders.
There's no question that Désirée Clary is an important historical figure. Over the course of her life, she was loved and trusted by numerous men of great significance. However, she is a rather terrible protagonist for a traditional big-screen drama. While it's hard to say whether Désirée's portrait of its title character is fair to the real-life historical figure, in the hands of director Henry Koster and actress Jean Simmons (a generally reliable talent who seems atypically uninspired in this film) she's a complete waste of celluloid. Désirée is a somewhat dim, spoiled, childish woman who wants nothing more than to be the wife of someone very wealthy and powerful (a goal shared by her sister Julie). Truly, the Clarys were the Kardashians of their era. Granted, the film was made in an era of less-than-progressive social attitudes, but Désirée makes June Cleaver look like one of the great icons of feminism. Upon being kissed by Napoleon, she runs to her room and begins writing in her diary. "I'm finally writing in this diary," she excitedly tells Julie. "At long last I actually have something to write about!" It is quite easy to believe that Désirée truly didn't have any thoughts worth preserving prior to that moment.
Still, the film is of some value as an examination of an significant chapter in French history. Or rather, it would be of some value if it spent more time on actually examining that significant chapter and less on handing its characters' tedious, melodramatic, aimless conversations (a choice snippet from Variety's review at the time of the film's release: "There is a theory in Hollywood that nothing bogs down a historical film as easily as historical facts. It is a maxim which 20th Century Fox must have had very much in mind."). The dialogue by Daniel Taradish (working from a novel by Annemarie Selinko) often sounds like an earnest parody of self-important romantic melodramas:
Napoleon: "I want my family to be well-established. Joseph, particularly. The rest must wait until the victorious culmination of my campaign in Italy."
Désirée: "And you think you can do with people precisely what you want? That life is as you say it is?"
Napoleon: "Have you ever heard of a thing called destiny, Désirée?"
There are also moments of groan-inducing self-aware humor littered throughout the film, such as when someone mentions the name of Napoleon Bonaparte to Josephine's snooty brother. "Napoleon Bonaparte," he sneers, "What a ridiculous name!"
Speaking of Napoleon and ridiculousness, the film's best and worst element is Marlon Brando's performance as the famous French general. Despite Koster's considerable efforts, Brando refused to take the role seriously and insisted on treating the whole project as a lark. His Brando is a foppish, campy goofball, a brooding clown who speaks in a cadence Richard Burton might find a shade exaggerated. Brando's pouty performance lacks any genuine conviction; the actor can barely contain his playful spite for the character. Brando eventually admitted that the performance was, "a serious retrogression and the most shaming performance of my life." Terrible as it may be at times, at least Brando's Napoleon is entertaining, which is more than can be said of the rest of this wax museum of a film.
I may sound as if I'm being a little harsh on Désirée. Perhaps I am. After all, it's not as if the film is complete trash. The production design is handsome, the score by Alex North is lovely (if a bit more conventional than usual for the composer), the history isn't any worse than the average Hollywood biopic and the film does contain a handful of enjoyable moments (Désirée on the statues in her bedroom: "I fear at any moment that they may turn into fountains and begin spewing water from the unlikeliest of places."). However, the regard the film has for itself is considerably higher than the regard we have for it, which makes the whole experience more than a little unbearable.
Twilight Time has granted Désirée (Blu-ray) a rather attractive 1080p/2.55:1 transfer. There's some occasional damage, flecks and specks (and flesh tones look a bit off, too), but generally the level of detail is strong and the lavish set design is absorbing. There are moments when the picture looks a little flat, but this isn't a consistent problem. Blacks tend to be deep and inky and the brighter colors really dazzle. The DTS HD 4.0 Master Audio track gets the job done nicely, as North's score sounds particularly vivid and lush. The dialogue is clean and clear throughout, though sound design tends to be quite minimal. It's not an immersive mix, but it's crisp and clean. Supplements are the usual slim pickings Twilight Time offers: an isolated score track, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo.
In 1954, Désirée made more money at the box office than Elia Kazan's great On the Waterfront (also starring Brando). When Brando was informed of this news, he quoted H.L. Mencken: "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." Today, On the Waterfront remains a relevant, vibrant, beloved piece of cinema. Désirée, sadly…well, let's just say that there's a reason history has forgotten this one. Cinemascope enthusiasts and Brando aficionados will undoubtedly be thrilled to have a stellar hi-def release of the flick, but the casually curious need not apply.
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