“The impertinence!” scream the courtiers of Louis XV when his newly recruited mistress, Countess Jeanne du Barry, has the audacity to look him in the eye. It is just the latest in a long line of taboo-breaking outrages that surround the affair between the king and the commoner: She doesn’t have a title! She turns her back on him! She dresses like a man! For this reason alone, it’s easy to see why Maïwenn, one of France’s more controversial directors, saw fit to topline herself with Johnny Depp in a film that’s entirely about class and status and whose leading characters are bent on committing reputational suicide.
Jeanne du Barry also flexes the specifically French cultural views surrounding the topic of sexual impropriety. While the Cannes Film Festival continues to appear to be wilfully deaf to the topic of cancel culture, Maïwenn’s latest feature — which opens the festival on the same day as its local release — does shed some historical light on the curious tolerance the French have for their kinsmen’s infidelities and sexual peccadilloes.
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Parallels with Sofia Coppola’s 2006 competition entry Marie Antoinette are not immediate, but they become clear soon enough. Nevertheless, Maïwenn is not about to follow the American director down the post-modern rabbit hole. This is made obvious in the opening credits, which start with the Bonnie and Clyde-style pairing of Maïwenn and Depp, and unroll to Stephen Warbeck’s solemn, period-rich score — the aural equivalent of the life of opulence that awaits the title character. In fact, for a while, the film more closely resembles a gender-swap take on Tony Richardson’s 1963 genteel sex comedy Tom Jones, based on Henry Fielding’s bawdy 18th-century novel, although the comedy is much more subtle and, surprisingly for a film about sex, not very sexy at all.
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There’s also a little of Voltaire’s novel Candide in the irresistible rise of Jeanne Vaubernier (Maïwenn), the illegitimate child of a monk and a cook. “She came from nothing,” reveals the narrator (Stanislas Stanic). “But aren’t girls who come from nothing ready for anything?” Jeanne certainly is, going through two actresses to depict her upbringing, starting with her early life under the generous mentorship of her mother’s employer, a broad-minded nobleman, and her scandalous ejection from a convent for the crime of reading forbidden books and thereby falling under “the unsettling sway of eroticism.” From there, she heads to Paris — “Capital of hope and all danger” — where, still under her mother’s watchful eye, she climbs the ladders of high society.
The story begins in earnest when Jeanne, now Maïwenn, meets the Count du Barry (Melvil Poupaud), a lothario and notorious playboy, who proposes a partnership. The deal soon turns sour, as the Count insists on flaunting his affairs, but Jeanne stays with him for the sake of his son. By this stage, the Count is more pimp than lover, and his plans for Jeanne go all the way to the top: “The King! The King!” she wails. “It’s an obsession!” But the Count is not the only one, and the wily Duc de Richelieu (Pierre Richard) also deems her worth of the royal bed. Enter La Borde (Benjamin Lavernhe), a palace insider who literally walks Jeanne through the arcane rituals of the court and facilitates the hook-up.
Johnny Depp makes his largely wordless debut at about the 20-minute mark with a grand entrance that’s both impressive and unsettling, approximating the effect of putting Edward Scissorhands’ gothic lipstick and powder onto the bloated, weary face of Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz. Will this be a Brando-esque cameo? Surprisingly not; Louis XV is here for the duration. The accuracy of his accent is for Francophones to debate, and his role is suspiciously light on dialogue. But Maïwenn leans heavily into Depp’s chops as a visual actor. In perhaps the film’s best scene, Jeanne watches through a two-way mirror as the king’s advisors descend on his bedroom to wake, wash and shave him, then grant an audience to his three daughters. Depp’s deadpan face throughout is priceless, throwing despairing looks to the woman behind the glass.
Maïwenn’s film is full of great moments like this (there’s a very funny running gag about the etiquette of leaving the king’s presence), and the decision to shoot key scenes in Versailles — like the Cannes Film Festival, an edifice to excess whose denizens didn’t always see which way the political wind was blowing — adds an immersive kind of authenticity. The same can be said about the costume design, which goes above and beyond the needs of period drama when Jeanne steps up her sartorial game, going through more costume changes in a weekend than Katy Perry in a Super Bowl halftime show. Hair, meanwhile, has not been this high since John Waters’ original 1988 Hairspray.
Such pageantry, however, can’t quite cover up the fact that there isn’t much glue to the story, which unfolds as a series of vignettes, and feels more like we’re looking at scenes from a life in retrospect than being invested in watching a wild life being lived to the fullest. This is especially the case when Marie-Antoinette (Pauline Pollman) comes on the scene; egged on by Louis XV’s deliciously bitchy daughters, The Dauphin’s wife-to-be carries serious power and literally has the power to see Jeanne banished. The drama, though, is strangely inert, and a film that starts with so much energy and promise bows out with a lot of strung-out, elongated pomp.
The novelty factor of seeing Johnny Depp in his first post-trial role will definitely spur international curiosity, but there’s weighty cast here that more than supports him, notably Poupaud as the wily du Barry, Lavernhe as the likeable La Borde and the fantastically named India Hair as Adélaïde, one of the king’s unsufferable daughters. Maïwenn, meanwhile, gives a good account of herself, and contrary to expectations, she doesn’t play Jeanne as an ego boost, focusing instead on the tempestuous love affair between a king and his courtesan. If only some of that passion could be seen on screen, however; if Maïwenn’s heroine really did sleep her way to the top and go to an early grave branded “sin incarnate,” then Jeanne du Barry must surely be the PG version.
Title: Jeanne du Barry
Festival: Cannes (Out of Competition)
Screenwriter: Teddy Lussi-Modeste
Cast: Maiwenn, Johnny Depp, Benjamin Lavernhe, Pierre Richard, Melvil Poupaud, Pascal Greggory, India Hair
Running time: 1 hr 56 min
Sales agent: Goodfellas
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