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In 1794, Etienne Clary, a prosperous Marseille silk merchant, is horrified to learn that his impetuous younger sister Désirée has made the acquaintance of a Corsican named Joseph Bonaparte and invited him and his brother, Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte, to call upon the family the following day. Désirée quarrels with Etienne, her mother and sister Julie, but the next day, Julie and Joseph are immediately attracted to each other, and the forceful Napoleon is taken with Désirée. The naïve girl is bemused by Napoleon's blunt talk of his great destiny, and his admission that the poor Bonaparte brothers need the rich dowries of the Clary sisters, but quickly falls in love with him. Later, Désirée is in the family shop preparing Julie's wedding dress when Napoleon is arrested and taken to Paris. Napoleon eventually returns to Marseilles and tells Désirée that he has been cleared of charges of treason, but has been ordered to track down royalists in Paris. Désirée begs Napoleon to leave the Army and join Etienne in business, but the arrogant young general scoffs at the idea of becoming a ribbon merchant and instead proposes marriage. Although Etienne refuses to bless the union, Désirée accepts and lends Napoleon the money to return to Paris. Napoleon tells her that he will always love her and will return soon for their wedding, but as the months pass, Désirée begins to doubt him. After hearing Napoleon's sisters gossiping about the hedonistic lifestyle that he is leading in Paris, Désirée goes to the city and tries to attend a party at the home of Madame Tallien, who is a friend of Napoleon. When a servant refuses to allow Désirée to enter unescorted, she asks for help from Gen. Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who gladly escorts the pretty girl inside. Heartbroken to discover that Napoleon is engaged to the wealthy, socially powerful Josephine de Beauharnais, Désirée throws a glass of champagne at her and flees. Bernadotte follows her to a bridge on which she is contemplating suicide, and gives her a ride to her lodgings in his carriage. Bernadotte falls in love with Désirée during the journey, but she refuses to give him any information about herself or to see him again. Later, in 1797, Napoleon, now France's leading general, has succeeded in conquering Italy, and Désirée lives in Rome with Julie and Joseph, who has been made an ambassador of the French Republic. Désirée tires of the gloomy palace in which they live, however, and decides to return to Paris, even though her family worries that she still has feelings for Napoleon. Désirée dismisses their concern and attends a party at which Napoleon, who is now married to Josephine, compliments her on her stylish, adult appearance. During dinner, Napoleon announces that he will be leaving soon to lead his campaign to conquer Egypt, and Bernadotte, who is thrilled to see Désirée again, questions Napoleon's position that conquest is the way to establish peace between the East and West. Afterward, Napoleon talks alone with Désirée and defends his warlike policies by stating that he is the true spirit of the French Revolution. Napoleon makes a veiled request for Désirée to become his mistress, but she runs from the room and is once again rescued by Bernadotte, who takes her to "their" bridge. There, Bernadotte proposes marriage and assures Désirée that he will not mind that she first loved Napoleon. By 4 Jul 1799, Désirée and Bernadotte have happily settled into married life and have a son, Oskar. When Josephine and Napoleon pay their respects to the new parents, Josephine sadly confides in Désirée how much she envies her her son. In the other room, Bernadotte continues to challenge Napoleon's autocratic methods and states that he will not support him in establishing a dictatorship. On 9 Nov 1799, however, Napoleon is proclaimed First Consul of the French Republic, and when Bernadotte reports to his office the following day, Napoleon asserts that his appointment has averted civil war, then asks Bernadotte to join his council of state. Intrigued by Napoleon's promise to enact civic improvements such as a unified code of laws and a bank of France, Bernadotte agrees, but warns that while Napoleon will have his loyalty, he will never have his affection. Several years later, Napoleon engineers to have himself proclaimed emperor, and stuns the crowd at his coronation when he takes the crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII and crowns himself. Five years later, desperate to have an heir, Napoleon divorces Josephine, and Désirée comforts her former rival, before Napoleon's upcoming marriage to the eighteen-year-old Marie Louise of Austria. As time passes, Napoleon involves France in more wars, and Bernadotte is lavished with medals and honors for his heroic acts. After he is wounded and sent back to Paris, Bernadotte is approached by representatives of the king of Sweden, who wishes to adopt him and make him the heir to the throne. Désirée is stunned by the news that she will one day be a queen but supports her husband, who understands Sweden's need to have a ruler capable of maintaining independence from Napoleon. When Bernadotte petitions to give up his French citizenship, however, Napoleon explodes with rage and demands that Bernadotte remain loyal to him. Bernadotte maintains that Sweden's interests will always be his first concern, and eventually Napoleon allows him and Désirée to leave Paris. In Stockholm, the independent Désirée fails to fit in with the convention-bound royal family and, realizing that she is an embarrassment to Bernadotte, asks to go home so that he can continue with the vital business of repulsing Napoleon's hostile advances. Eight months later, Désirée attends a ball in Paris, and there Napoleon shows off his new son by Marie Louise. As he dances with Désirée, Napoleon makes veiled threats about Bernadotte's alliance with Russia, and when Désirée supports her husband's politics, Napoleon announces to the crowd that she will be held hostage to ensure Sweden's support while his army marches through Russia to Moscow. Later, after Napoleon's army has been defeated, he visits Désirée and asks her to write a letter to Bernadotte, requesting his help. Désirée realizes that Napoleon, who still loves her, came to see her more than to seek her husband's support. Soon after, Bernadotte leads one of the armies that overwhelms Napoleon, and the triumphant general reunites with Désirée before returning to Sweden. Napoleon's exile to Elba is short-lived, however, and after the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon retreats with his personal army to Malmaison. Hoping to avoid further bloodshed, representatives of the allied armies ask Désirée to speak with Napoleon, in the hope that she can persuade him to surrender. Napoleon agrees to speak with Désirée alone, and muses on what his destiny would have been if he had married her. Napoleon proclaims that he has given his life to protect France, but Désirée gently tells him that he must do as France asks and go into exile on St. Helena. Commenting on how strange it is that the two most outstanding men of their time had fallen in love with her, Napoleon gives Désirée his sword in surrender, and assures her that her dowry was not the only reason he proposed to her many years ago in Marseilles.