Marie Antoinette, who served as the Queen of France from 1774-1792, was beheaded in 1793. This we know definitively. But with that in mind, what satisfaction can we as media viewers possibly gain from watching a fictionalized account of her life apart from gaining a passing (and potentially falsified) knowledge of history– events which could more satisfactorily be gained from, say, reading a book? As The Rose of Versailles proves, by focusing largely on the aforementioned French monarch, the foreknowledge of a series’ conclusion is indeed not without its rewards.
Consider, for example, the viewing of a production of Romeo and Juliet. We know that Romeo will poison himself, mistaking Juliet to be dead, and we know that Juliet, upon awakening will find his body and subsequently stab herself. Yet, those of us fully engaging with the production find ourselves hoping that Romeo might stay his hand for but a moment, that the apothecary will refuse him poison, or that he might get advance word just this once of Juliet’s scheme to stage her death and flee Verona. We know what events must transpire and yet we hope that they won’t, experiencing the narrative afresh upon re-watching, as if we were seeing it for the first time.
And thus we experience The Rose of Versailles in no small part due to its central, fictional figure of Lady Oscar François de Jarjayes. This 40-episode anime circa 1979-1980, adapted from the manga by Riyoko Ikeda, finds the fictional Lady Oscar dropped smack dab in the middle of the rising, real-world conflict between the French nobility and the people who would someday lead the French Revolution. Born the youngest daughter of a French general (who was a real world personage), Lady Oscar is raised as a boy and eventually becomes the commander of the Royal Guard, committed to serving Marie Antoinette. At first, Lady Oscar must defend the innocent Antoinette from her enemies in the court, enemies of which the would-be queen is blissfully unaware or which she herself creates out of her own sense of propriety. To this end, a central conflict in the series’ first arc results from Antoinette’s staunch refusal to acknowledge Madame du Barry, a former prostitute and the King’s mistress, at court. Although a seemingly minor transgression to those of us looking back from the modern era, that this conflict is spread out across three episodes emphasizes the significance that French nobility placed on the archaic traditions (balls, lavish dress, feasts, etc.) that bankrupted taxpayers in the 18th century, forcing the average French citizen to persist in debilitating poverty.
For the most part, however, Oscar takes a back seat in these contests between the French aristocracy (which are inspired by real-life events as it happens), and only ever chimes in to lend a hand in the characters’ decision-making processes or step in when asses need kicking. But the real drama of the series, inspiring those moments when we feel the aforementioned pangs of hope with the greatest intensity, stems from Oscar’s intermittent contact with those average citizens on the verge of starvation, hard-working people who must watch their loved ones die as a result of Antoinette’s misguided perception that if she’s happy (which requires a hell of a lot of money), the people must be happy. In those moments, we, like Lady Oscar, hope beyond hope that the sweet but naïve Antoinette will see the error of her ways. But this hope is inevitably tempered by fear as the narrator constantly informs us that we are but a scant handful of years away from the French Revolution and Antoinette’s execution. Given that the series thus periodically reminds us of the inevitable tragedies awaiting our central cast of characters, an ominous air hangs over the proceedings even in moments of great levity.
What’s more, the series is not only spectacularly engaging on a narrative level, but it’s a marvelous work of animation as well! The Rose of Versailles is stylishly cinematic, employing such techniques as multiple exposures, color and lighting shifts, canted angles, multiple frames, and impressionistic backgrounds in its visual presentation. And these techniques are not used sparsely by any means. In fact, the list I compiled above was generated from elements noted whilst watching a single episode. Moreover, with regard to the series’ pacing, moments of silence highlight the action in each episode, giving us more than ample time to consider the ramifications of events depicted and thus adding drama to the whole affair. By comparison, American viewers of serialized animation would not see silence thus employed until the 1990s, when the producers of Batman: The Animated Series demanded more of the animators they contracted the series out to than simply getting the script onto the page as quickly and efficiently as possible. Thus, The Rose of Versailles is more akin to the sophisticated animation of the era’s cinema than that which we typically associate with late 70s-early 80s television animation.
The first twenty episodes of the series are currently available from Nozomi Entertainment in a four-DVD Limited Edition box set featuring a beautiful, hardboard collector’s case, textless openings and closings by way of special features, and a near-flawless transfer.