Marlon Brando proved his stature as one of the greatest movie actors over and over again - from "A Streetcar Named Desire" through "On the Water Front" all the way to "The Godfather." In the light of his marvelous performance as Napoleon I. in "Desiree," it seems surprising that this movie doesn't quite get the same attention as those others he starred in. "Desiree" seems even more underrated when you take into account the great acting of Jean Simmons (Desiree Clary), Merle Oberon (Josephine Beauharnais), and Michael Rennie (Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte). All four main actors deliver powerful performances giving the viewer a real sense of the powerful personalities they embody.
The story is that of Napoleon, however, seen through the eyes of his first fiancée, Desiree Clary, daughter of a wealthy Marseilles merchant, whom Napoleon leaves to wed Josephine Beauharnais. The Beauharnais's political connections facilitate the military leader's rise to political power, but Napoleon dumps her for Marie Luise of Austria when it turns out that Josephine is unable to bear children.
Meanwhile, Desiree marries Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, one of Napoleons most distinguished generals. Thus, Desiree remains in Napoleon's orbit, and the Emperor repeatedly distinguishes her amongst the ladies of his court, making it clear that his love for her never fully died out. When the Swedish parliament offers her throne to her husband, Desiree follows Bernadotte to his new country. But since she's unable to adapt to the stiff protocol of the Swedish court, Desiree returns to France, just in time to see Napoleon make the tragic mistake of leading the "grande armee" to Russia.
Marlon Brando masterfully conveys the image of a charismatic leader who believes himself chosen by destiny to fulfill a task of truly historic proportions. In every scene, Brando's Napoleon commands attention and obedience by way of natural authority. From the moment he enters the Clarys' family parlor and seizes control of the evening conversation all the way through his bitter discussions with Bernadotte about the latter's acceptance of the Swedish crown to his acknowledgment of defeat after the Battle of Waterloo Brando shows us a dignified, determined, and at times dangerous leader.
Just one - hilariously funny - example: There is a scene in which the court is rehearsing for the 1804 coronation of Napoleon and Josephine in Notre Dame with the future Emperor not present. Napoleon's sisters refuse to carry Josephine's train and bicker about their brother's not bestowing enough honors and titles upon them. All of a sudden, Brando's voice is heard "May I be of help in this difficult and strategic operation?", and the entire court bows down in deference. As Marlon Brando walks through the ranks of the lickspittles, everything seems in perfect order. He IS the Emperor in the same way that he just IS the godfather. And it's that natural authority that Brando conveys throughout the film.
Simmons's Desiree on the other hand is charming. The character is not designed to have the same powerful screen presence though it lends itself to the movie's title but nonetheless Desiree is an interesting character in that she exhibits human growth. The character starts as a naïve, flirtatious teenager infatuated by the "bovarisme" of romantic novels; she's just as overjoyed at commanding the attention of a general as she's heartbroken on finding out that Napoleon is going to marry Josephine. She then moves on to becoming the traditional mother figure as she has a son with Bernadotte; a desirable woman willing and able to bear responsibility, but without any greater intellectual ambition. And she finally reaches a stage of intellectual maturity which enables her to convince the Emperor in a grand, though highly fictionalized scene that it is better to surrender to the allied forces than to shed more blood in a futile attempt to save the bits and pieces of his shattered empire after the Battle of Waterloo. It is this development that is mirrored in Simmons's performance at all stages.
Oberon and Rennie as Josephine and Bernadotte are congenial counterparts though their characters have considerably less screen time and are of lesser importance to the plot. Particularly Oberon's air of desolation in the scene in which she speaks with Desiree about Napoleon's decision to marry Marie Louise is impressive. So, too, are the aforesaid discussions between Bernadotte and Napoleon. Brando's Napoleon commands the scene here too, but there is an authentic sense that Rennie's Bernadotte is doggedly refusing to give in to his former commander's demands.
"Desiree" is an underrated movie, especially given the comparatively low IMDb-rating, which remains mysterious to me. The performance of Brando is outstanding; those of Simmons, Oberon, and Rennie are remarkable as well. It goes without saying that the costumes are lavish and the cinematography impressive. A top movie in the genre of historic drama.