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Lady Oscar
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by Jay Seaver

"This 'Rose of Versailles' is certainly unique."
3 stars

"Lady Oscar" is quite a peculiar movie artifact - French director Jacques Demy's English-language adaptation of a Japanese comic about a noblewoman who lived as a man and served as a palace guard at Versailles until the French Revolution. It is not a bad film at all, although I must confess - how it got made in this particular form seems to be just as strange as the story it tells.

It begins with a proud general (Mark Kingston) welcoming an eighth daughter into the world and declaring that this one will be raised as a son, therefore giving her the peculiar name of Oscar Françoise de Jarjayes, and directing that the child's nanny (Constance Chapman) take in her orphaned nephew Andre so that they may be raised together. Years later, Oscar (Catriona MacColl) has grown skilled as a soldier and when she is assigned to the Royal Guard, Andre (Barry Stokes) is given a job in the stables. Soon Oscar is the personal guard to Marie Antoinette (Christine Böhm) and struggling with her attraction to her paramour, Hans von Fersen (Jonas Bergström), but also not oblivious to how Andre feels about her, despite their differences in rank.

Though relatively unknown in the United States, Ikeda Riyoko's shojo manga The Rose of Versailles casts a tremendous shadow in Japan; girls who are athletic or otherwise drawn to traditionally-masculine pursuits will still occasionally be called "Lady Oscar", the animated series based upon the comics has been reissued (including its first American release), and there's apparently still a line of cosmetics inspired by the property. In many ways, it typifies what people think of when shojo (girls') manga or anime is mentioned: Grand melodrama, lavish, beautiful detail, elaborate clothes, and an artistic style that emphasizes the characters' delicacy.

And though Demy and company don't fill the screen with sparkles, they do an impressive job of translating this comic style to live-action. Though the picture is not overwhelmingly ornate, it is full of elaborate detail, and if Cartiona MacColl doesn't quite look like this sort of drawing brought to life, she'll certainly do, with her expressive eyes and costumes that are far too beautiful to fool very many - indeed, within the story it seems that the only people who are fooled are the ones who cannot conceive of a woman in this sort of position, while the women in court tend to find Oscar exciting, as a trend of ladies crossdressing begins as they try to experience a different life vicariously.

No, having a European man tap into the shojo style does not turn out to be the issue - instead, Demy and screenwriting collaborator Patricia Louisianna Knop (who would later become better known for her work with husband Zalman King) fall prey to the pitfall that has swallowed so many who adapt manga on film: The source material is so sprawling - twenty-five volumes of roughly 200 pages each - and episodic that a film just doesn't have room to fit the whole over-arching story or all of the popular moments and characters. This one winds up covering thirty-five years, going off on tangents that have good scenes but don't necessarily help give the film a central thrust. There are a couple of potentially great ideas in here - there's a villainess also presenting herself as something she is not who could have been a great foil for Oscar, though their paths barely cross, and Oscar's growing sympathy with what would eventually erupt into the Revolution has plenty of intriguing facets. Ultimately, though, it's hard for the filmmakers to keep focus; the years pass too slowly and no story of Oscar's gets to take center stage in a way that makes her more than an unusual witness to history.

Cartiona MacColl, at least, fills the part nicely. Oscar-the-soldier may sometimes feel a little like she's overcompensating, but it's not a role she plays, either; it does feel like who she was raised to be rather than what she plays at to please her father. It's a physically clever performance - aside from selling the occasional bit of swashbuckling, she always walks more quickly and in a straighter line than the other women, even in a big, airy dress - even if the line readings can be a bit flat. That's not unique to MacColl; the whole cast is a little off from natural in some way, with Barry Stokes's Andre probably the closest and Christine Böhm eventually making Marie more absurd than sly-but-oblivious.

Enough of the property's appeal shines through that you can see why Demy and Knop would be a good team to make "Lady Oscar" - when it's on, it's a lush, colorful picture with adventure, romance, and just a tiny thrill of kink, filled with characters that let the filmmakers have fun with gender and class roles. Making it in English in the hopes of it becoming an international hit seems to hamper the production, though, as does trying to fit too much story into two hours. At least enough goes right that one is liable to finish the movie liking the things that work, rather than wondering what the people involved were thinking.

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originally posted: 12/31/14 11:23:17
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