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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film recreates the real-life story of a young girl from Marseille who was destined to marry Joseph Bonaparte but instead fell in love with his younger brother Napoléon. This would be enough plot for a film like, say, "Moonstruck". But wait, there's more! Napoléon marries Joséphine and Désirée marries General Bernadotte on the rebound. Napoléon names Bernadotte king of Sweden, thus turning his first love into a foreign queen and his ex-general into an eventual enemy. This story was remade by Hollywood as "Désirée" (with Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando). This version was made during the German occupation of France (1942) where the censors couldn't possibly object to a romantic depiction of a French emperor ending in a French defeat which also served as a reminder of the ties of occupied France with neutral Sweden. Where Guitry, who was a famous actor besides being an author and director, breaks all theatrical and cinematic conventions is when he takes over the role of Napoléon himself during the last part of the film in order to remind everyone that it's only a film after all and that the subtle handling of the last scenes needed a deft comedic touch that no amount of make-up could impart to skinny-as-a-rail Jean-Louis Barrault, who played Napoléon in the first part. Guitry specialized in historical recreations to which his witty asides and realistic dialogue added a fresh new luster. This biography mixed with comedic elements may be his masterpiece in that it moves in a very modern fashion from the accepted clichés of romantic chick-flicks to the acerbic wit of an ageing lover of women commenting on the fascinating spectacle of life's vanities. This film is not available in any format anywhere on the planet except as an occasional TV offering in France and Canada. It is high time concerned francophiles founded a Society of the Friends of Sacha Guitry in North America in order to bring such masterpieces to Region 1 DVD in their original French version and in a restored condition if possible.
Now you know where jean-Pierre Jeunet found his title for his 2002
blockbuster but Désirée 's destiny was more ...fabulous than Amélie's
and where Henry Koster found his inspiration for the Brando/Simmons
I would not go as far as to write ,like the talented reviewer Benoit Racine,that it is Guitry's best" historical" movie;there are plenty of them and I must confess like his extravaganzas such as "Les Perles De La Couronne" or " Si Versailles M'Etait Conté " best.
The movie is divided in two distinct parts ,separated by the cast and credits in the middle of the story (which for the time,was not usual;still isn't).As usual ,Guitry appears in the flesh ,thanking the cameraman,the set designer,the editor...;most amazing thing,instead of making the actors look older,he uses different ones :Jean-Louis Barrault ,for instance is asked to give his part of Napoleon to his own director !
The first part is just OK but it's the second one which reveals Guitry the megalomaniac genius ,obsessed with immortality and mortality (the short shot of Bernadotte on his death bed );that someone can surpass him is unbearable and more than Désirée ,it's his former Marechal who fascinates the director/Emperor ;and although Bernadotte ended his life gloriously and gracefully ,history hardly remembers him,apart from people from Sweden whereas the prisoner of Sainte Helene is talked about here there and everywhere.
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