Jacques Demy’s loose adaptation of Riyoko Ikeda’s The Rose of Versailles, the 1979 Lady Oscar, is that movie you don’t find well-made or even all that entertaining, but its shortcomings and precious few strengths render it absolutely fascinating. It’s not just the poor performances and often cringe-inducing dialogue juxtaposed with beautiful costumes, composition, and music. You just have to wonder: what was the intention of the filmmakers when they made this?
For those unfamiliar with the gist of Ikeda’s The Rose of Versailles, it is an epic period piece, the main story spanning roughly two decades, from Marie Antoinette’s arrival in France in 1770 until the first years of the French Revolution. Though Marie Antoinette was originally the central character, the focus was switched to her fictional bodyguard Oscar de Jarjayes, a young woman whose father raised her as a boy that he might have an heir, once she eclipsed the queen in popularity amongst the manga’s readership. Brave, athletic, and so dashing that even the proper ladies of the French court are openly infatuated with her, Oscar is allowed the privileges of men while also being permitted to embrace her female identity. The plot follows the progression of the impending revolution, showcasing the plight of the lower classes, Marie Antoinette’s estrangement and subsequent destructive frivolity in the French court, and Oscar’s own shift from royalist to revolutionary.
Lady Oscar bears little resemblance to its source material or the anime television adaptation. Though the story spans from Oscar’s birth in the 1750s to the storming of the Bastille in 1789, there is a lack of epic scope. The pacing is choppy and rushed, giving us little time to see much character progression or development.
You could write a book on the terrible performances and this is the element of the film which brings it low. More than one Rose of Versailles fan has bemoaned Catriona MacColl’s unambiguously feminine take on the androgynous Oscar.
That her performance is awkward, uncharismatic, and stiff does her no favors either; that and being unable to mount a horse without aid or throw a good punch, so the woman does not convince as an athletic member of the imperial guard either. When other characters mistake her for a man, it’s beyond unbelievable. Her character arc from royalist to revolutionary is done with all the naturalism of an after-school special. And while there is one homoeroticism-tinged scene between Oscar and a woman at court, her sexual appeal to the same sex is eradicated.
The characterizations of Oscar’s lower class childhood friend/love interest Andre, Marie Antoinette, Count Axel von Fersen, and Louis XVI are similarly degraded and simplified into silly, unpleasant caricatures lacking the richness of the original story and not compensating the audience for that loss. In particular, Marie Antoinette is made into a shallow doll, whilst in the source she was a flawed but sympathetic character for whom Oscar had affection, even after she renounced her royalist position. One of the major subplots of the original story, that belonging to the commoner Rosalie and her socially ambitious step-sister Jeanne, feels like an afterthought in this adaptation. And the tender love story between Oscar and Andre is up there with Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala in the Star Wars prequels: utterly chemistry-less.
As for the script, well, here are some choice dialogue selections to give you an idea of its quality:
Rosalie: “Kind sir, you look gentle! And perhaps will show patience with a girl of my young age and lack of experience—I will sleep with you for enough to pay our rent!”
Oscar: “Even if I were a man—which I am not—I would NEVER pay for love.”
Andre: (angry that Oscar is ignoring his creepy self) “How much?”
Oscar: “ANDRE! How dare you?!”
Andre: “You’ve found your voice at last! Well, what do you say to the fact that it’s time I put aside my boyish pursuits… and began tasting the sweet wine of manhood.”
Rosalie: “But I haven’t any wine, sir! I haven’t even a crust of bread! My mother is weak from hunger!”
Oscar: “Hunger? People don’t go hungry in Paris!”
Rosalie: “People STARVE in Paris!”
Or how about…
Louis XVII: “Then tell me, is it true that the good die young?”
Marie Antoinette: “Of course not! After all, I am a supremely good person, and am growing older and wiser each day.”
(With a line like that, I’m surprised no one ever cracked a “Hey Marie, don’t lose your head” joke.)
Considering the mild fairy tale-esque feel and Michel Legrand score, it seems like viewing Lady Oscar as a Demy production may be a more fruitful route in terms of analysis. However, I don’t know how much control Demy had over this film; in fact, I can find precious little information about its making. It was an English language French-Japanese production with a cast from all over Europe. The filmmakers were given a translation of the original story which apparently ended up lost during production. At any rate, this is hardly a praiseworthy entry in Demy’s oeuvre.
Since this film isn’t interested in being a faithful recreation of the source material nor is it a great example of Jacques Demy’s filmmaking (aside from a technical perspective), then what is it? What does it want to say about the French Revolution or these characters? Well, the French Revolution is depicted in a Cliff Notes manner, but like the original manga, the performative nature of gender is a major theme, one which the film zeroes in on and, surprisingly, even excels at depicting.
On the page and separated from MacColl’s performance, Demy’s Oscar is androgynous, comfortable in both masculine and feminine spheres, able to best others at fencing and rock a ball gown. Despite being raised as a man, Oscar never seems fulfilled with this identity and often seems to wonder at the femininity of Marie Antoinette, wondering if she should ever want to be a mother or marry. When struggling with having to kill someone during a duel, Oscar asks her friend Andre why she cannot “kill like a man” and he replies “Because you’re not a man.” One could easily read Lady Oscar as essentialist in its view of gender roles and it is easy to see that is how this Andre views things, but I’ll be fair and say I think this Oscar is a character who would be happiest in a society which does not feel certain traits belong to certain genders: she wants to live in a world where she can protect the queen with her sword and be with the man she loves as a woman. It’s the one and only narrative aspect of the movie that I feel actually works. The political intrigue, characters, and historical sweep fall flat.
The political aspect in particular intensifies during the infamous conclusion, where the sufferings of the individual are contrasted with the communal joy of the lower class celebrating the fall of the Bastille.I will admit, it’s a haunting ending, one I wished had been paired with a much better film. But because MacColl’s Oscar is so wooden, Andre made so sullen and creepy, and the flow of the script rushed, all of the emotional impact it should have is not there. It’s tragic, really. Demy is a fantastic director. The Rose of Versailles is a modern classic. How could it have all gone so wrong?