Title: The Rose of Versailles (1979)
Original Language: Japanese (Subtitled, English)
Genre(s): Adventure, Historical Fiction, Romance, Drama
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
It’s the eve of the 18th century and France is flailing between hubris and chaos.
The air is stale in Paris; an odious despair engulfs the streets as the common man struggles to eat. The color of the Seine slowly begins to fade. Yet, the scarlet-stained roses of Versailles continue to bloom with such fervor, such elegance, and such nobility. Surrounded by decadence in its purest form, these roses thrive; unaffected and ignorant of the tumultuous tempest that brews, seeping insidiously into the soils of the earth.
One rose, the noblest of them all, with a chivalrous conviction breaks off-known better in the evocative masterpiece by Dezaki as Oscar Francois, or the real “Rose of Versailles”.
With sun-kissed golden tresses, a pellucid conviction, and a regal dominance, Oscar from the get-go is an enigmatically alluring character. Growing up as a noble, with a disillusioned father who fills her childhood with all the mannerisms of a noble boy, including her name, Oscar becomes the ideal French quixotic noble’man’.
Rose of Versailles charts the life of Oscar as she moves along the history of France as a woman, as a noble, and as a French military leader right before and during the French Revolution. This series is not aiming to be a completely historically accurate re-telling of the events, so any expectations and qualms related to that are unjustified. Rose of Versailles falls under the genre of historical fiction and the latter should clearly indicate what that entails. That being said, it still does well keeping the fabrics of history intact and seamlessly weaving it into a beautiful tapestry featuring everything one can expect from a great story with all the right elements.
Beneath the scintillating layer of the laid-out premise, the heart of Rose of Versailles offers something rare: complete enrapture. As one would imagine (and wouldn’t be wrong) to perhaps think of this as a story about the grand events of that time, the grandeur of it all, but it isn’t. Yes, all of these pieces are present, as nuances, or akin to the backdrop of a play, but the forefront is exclusively dominated by the characters and their affairs. The mercurial nature of each and every character beneath their facades is deeply explored, especially the duo of Oscar and her non-aristocratic childhood friend and worker, Andre Grandier. The social and personal evolution of the main cast is a feat in itself; especially when looked at in retrospect or holistically, due to their volatility and the debacles surrounding them throughout the show. As a result, we a get a cast of characters that are utterly human, hopelessly flawed, and undisputedly real who evoke and transpire an inexplicable sort of invested interest and feeling within.
Essentially this story can be summed up as a mosaic of struggles; with each piece outlining a certain element and how Oscar in relation with those around her, tries to overcome the societal dualisms and the shortcomings of herself, her regime, and her time while battling a gradually building inferno. As aforementioned, the series is primarily focused on the characters, while using history as a conduit to do so, yet the manner in which the setting is actualized is commendable. The series does an exceptional job highlighting the mood of the time. The macro problems from various perspectives are shown, which sets the stage on a silver platter. The haughty aristocracy, the indulgent royalty, and the crestfallen public along with their unstable dynamics are shown slowly, carefully, and realistically making the denouement of the series all the more effective. Since the show does fall under historical fiction, the manner in which the events are reinvented is integral to how the other, more prevalent elements come together.
One other aspect that Rose of Versailles effortlessly creates is the romance. The reason I explicitly bring this is up is because how understated ‘good’ romance is and by good, I mean believable, real, grounded, personal, evocative, and empathetic to the point that one can vicariously feel as if they too, are riding on the constantly-swinging pendulum of pathos. I don’t hesitate to call it the quintessential romance. The reason being that, one, it isn’t riddled with contrived or cheesy infestations just to evoke ‘something’ and, two, it’s complete in the sense that we get to trace the character’s developments as individuals first and then as complementary forces for one another, which does wonders for a good romance. It’s the transition between the first and the second that really accentuates the individual and then the individual-in-love. It is the former, when developed properly that the latter becomes significantly easier to birth. The infusion of romance almost feels magical because how subdued and subtle it is but when it hits, it hits with a spontaneous force that will leave its imprint in the minds and hearts of all those who experience it.
As full of praise the aforesaid words are, the series has its set of flaws, as small as they may be. The production values are nothing to glamorize and given that it’s from the 70’s, nothing to hold against it either. A major caveat that may burden the enjoyment of some people are the glimpses of extreme shoujoesque moments that surface such as the excessive over-dramatization both from a situational and technical stance. This over-dramatization plays out like a double-edged sword and ends up having the reverse effect. There is also an inconsistency in quality and pacing. The show takes some significant dips and it singes off little parts of enjoyment, but this often goes hand-in-hand with the extreme dramatization. For example, the first half of the show exclusively deals with seemingly petty drama surrounding the aristocracy and royalty which can seem overbearing at times, especially the recycled ignorance and stupidity of certain characters, but none of it is in vain. Each and every character and their actions, effectively in the first part of the show, has purpose when conjoined with the entirety of the series. Regardless, all of this can be easily be dismissed because of what the show does offer. It’s not hard to see why Rose of Versailles is hailed as definer of its genre(s) and setting the bar not just in its niche, but within the medium.
Naturally, this isn’t a series to gloss over or underestimate. This is a product of meticulous crafting. Dezaki invites you to sit in his reverent time-machine and travel back a few centuries ago where:
The Seine is coming to a standstill, shaded with ripples of red.
The streets are ready to be lit with the fires of a Revolution while France swings betwixt the twilight of former glory and present ruin.
And between the cracks of impending destruction rises a scarlet rose, embellished in decadence, but rooted in humanity.
Rose of Versailles is the idyllic example of how to tell a grand story simply; a grand story about people who may seem estranged to us, but in the end, are all too similar and the struggles they go through in some ways are universal, timeless, and ingrained within the ebb and flow of life; regardless of how grandiose the stage its set on may be…