Production Studio: Tokyo Movie Shinsha
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Love Is Agony
It’s difficult to put something as complex as Rose of Versailles into a single review. It contains such a rich variety of plot threads, all woven together into single tapestry. Tales of heroic deeds, loyalty, and love exist beside moments of ignorance, greed and suffering. These core ideas are brought together with a humanistic touch that will leave most viewers thinking about life’s greater mysteries.
Rose of Versailles is set in the years leading up to the French Revolution. Oscar Francois de Jarjayes is the youngest daughter of her family. Well, she would have been, had her father not declared otherwise. Oscar’s father is a a proud general in the military, with a strong interest in maintaining his family’s military bloodline. To ensure his legacy, General Jarjayes demands that Oscar be raised as a boy.
And, so it is. As she grows up, Oscar is taught the finer points of combat, fencing, and horsemanship. In the military, she succeeds brilliantly, to the point where she’s appointed leader of the Royal Guard. While Oscar enjoys playing the role of the dashing hero, she can’t help but long to life as a lady.
Rose of Versailles’s cast is wonderfully composed, with characters that are larger than life, yet incredibly subtle all the same. There’s a wonderful depth and complexity to the characters, who help to color the world as more than mere black and white. Secret ambitions and personal prejudices flavor the characters, giving a wonderful depth and complexity to how they fit into the world. For example, stable hand André grew up with André, and loves her from afar. Marie Antoinette is naïve, though her noble character shines through honest intentions. Even Oscar, while strong and heroic, has her own battles with pride and the rigors of her position.
Rose of Versailles is a story about people at its core, and nails that aspect wonderfully.
The series uses this people-centric approach to present an unblinking view of 1700s France, and the horrors it wrought on the population. Those in power gleefully take from their citizens, caring little about how it hurts the lowest classes. Marie Antoinette buys countless dresses from famed designers on the country’s dime. Nobles run over commoners in carriages, only to keep driving while a person lay dying in the street.
It’s a stark view of how corruption, greed, and class can lead to so many atrocities. In this world, the only things that matter to nobility are money, lineage, and legacy. Those beneath one’s social standing are merely a nuisance, to be ignored.
Even the very notion of love is based on this idea of class. Arranged marriages are commonplace, and the stresses of such burdens weigh heavily on those involves. The series goes above and beyond illustrating this in a truly heart-wrenching scene, where a girl, no older than twelve, jumps to her death to escape a marriage proposal. André wants nothing more than to call Oscar his own, but is utterly unable to profess his love, due to a lack of noble blood. Count Ferson and Marie Antoinette are deeply in love, though they can never be together. Ferson himself sums the situation up best, when he remarks that “there is only one love and it is filled with agony.”
Love is dangerous. It disrupts order, and imperils those who seek it. For nobles, loving their people too much can lead to an appointment in the guillotine. Loving those of lower status will destroy one’s image, and drive friends to do simply terrible things to one another. And, because of this, love is all but forgotten in the calculated grabs for status or power.
Status means everything.
Given that, Rose of Versailles‘s villains can only be seen as products of their environment. They lust after money, ignore the plight of those around them, and exploit people like cattle. They’re manipulative, backstabbing monsters that will do whatever it takes to be on top. In contrast to a character like Oscar, who does her best to be just and noble, it’s clear that she’s merely a threat to the status quo. To maintain the lives they’ve weaseled into, the upper crust will do anything to corrupt Oscar, starting with bribery and gifts and ultimately ending with threats of violence against family members and close friends.
Amid the intrigue and tales of upper-class skullduggery, though, Rose of Versailles is also a story of the commoners. These are folks who merely wish to live through the next day, changing the world for the better one day at a time. At every step of the way, though, they’re blocked. Commoners are oppressed, taxed into oblivion, and forced to survive on whatever scraps they can find. And, through the series, the kind faces that were once filled with hope become a bloodthirsty mob, fueled by rage. It doesn’t happen overnight, mind you. The people are driven into a frenzy after years of starvation, ignorance, and acts of cruelty upon them.
As the anger grows across the land, the characters grow and change, shaped by the tragedies occurring around them. Some rise to the occasion and change with the time, while others dig in an refuse to budge.
This is still the 1700s, though, and humanity still has the great equalizer known as smallpox. Smallpox kills indiscriminately. It doesn’t care about social status, or how much money one has. It infects, destroys, and spreads among the poor and the rich alike.
This was a detail that I really appreciated, as it shows that no matter how monstrous a character is, he’s still human. And regardless of what a person’s name or rank is, he could easily end up dying the same painful death of those in the lower quarter.
It should be noted that the show’s art style aged incredibly gracefully. It’s beautiful and clean, and does a fantastic job of really showing off the characters and world. Oscar, for example, is a truly attractive character whose sense of justice and conviction shine in her eyes. Her clothing is regal, yet iconic, and her overall look is simply fantastic. The style carries over to the French poor, who dream of a life where food is plentiful and the struggles of life are but a trifle. The hope and aspiration of these folks can be seen in their faces, though their clothing is ratty and torn. It’s a wonderful contrast to the muted black and blue hues that color their world, and creates an effective visual barrier between the nobles and the poor.
The musical score is solid, and accents the setting perfectly. From the lighthearted pieces played at the Versailles balls, to the sounds of strife in the streets of Paris, the score seems perfect, regardless of the situation. Visually, while some effects (like eye zooms to show character intentions) did get used often, they never become overly repetitive.
For fans of political drama, complex characters, and an unflinching portrayal of romance in 1700s France, Rose of Versailles is a must-see. Personally, I enjoyed my time with the series, as the characters offer plenty to hate, love, and generally just enjoy. At the same time, there’s plenty to contemplate on, from the struggles of the poor to the growing civil unrest, that really helps the world come to life.