Cast: Maïwenn, Johnny Depp
Released: Cannes Film Festival 2023
With a seven-minute standing ovation at the Cannes premiere, the scrum for the press conference and hundreds of adoring fans surrounding the Palais when he arrived, it’s easy to see why the world’s media would report Jeanne du Barry as the triumphant return of Johnny Depp to the cinematic centre stage.
In fact, it’s a royal triumphant return. In the film, Depp plays an eye-catching bewigged, heavily powdered King Louis XV, his entrance on screen heralded by bowing courtiers and curtseying ladies in elaborate gowns as he regally marches along the luminously beautiful hall of mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. His French is impressive, and he steadily holds his own as the penultimate King of France.
It would be incomplete to talk about this ‘comeback’ or ‘return’ without, at least, mentioning the reputation debilitating few years Depp has recently experienced. His personal and legal battles with ex-wife Amber Heard made global headlines. The tabloid frenzy divided friends, families, film studios and media outlets as people selected to be Team Johnny or Team Amber. Despite his ultimate success in the law courts, for all intents and purposes, his acting career in the US was thought to be over.
It was France that saved him. The country in which he has a second home and has lived for many years gave him a lifeline at a time when Hollywood would not. French design house Dior kept him as the face of their men’s scent (incidentally, it proved a commercially wise decision for them, as the scent he promotes is now the most potent selling fragrance in the world ). And it was a French filmmaker who gave him his big chance on screen again.
And that’s the other major story about this film. It’s written, produced and directed by a female filmmaker, Maïwenn, who also plays the titular role. That may not yield as many dramatic headlines as the resurrection of Johnny Depp’s career, despite Maïwenn having her controversies. Still, it certainly deserves coverage because the film is as much an achievement for her as it is for her leading man, who is actually in a supporting role.
Visually, the film is exquisitely beautiful. Each scene unfolds like a gorgeous painting brought to life. The cinematography is handsome. It helps to have the backdrop of Versailles itself, arguably the most beautiful palace in the world, but even the shots away from the palace are perfectly appealing. The costumes by Chanel are both resplendent and straightforward in a way only that the design house can achieve, and the orchestral score is a pleasure, too, for the ear.
The central story is relatively slight, considering the lavish setting and the seeds of revolution that are already brewing in the country. And the court intrigues never rise above the petty and personal. But the very smallness of the story, essentially the love affair between Jeanne and the King, gives the film an intimacy with which to engage with the characters and their need for each other. Similarly, the screenplay follows a predictable journey. Still, it adds to the investment the audience is invited to make in the tale of a girl from humble beginnings who almost rises to the status of Queen.
Young Jeanne Bécu, the illegitimate daughter of a monk and a cook, a pretty girl who loves reading, quickly realises that her prospects in life are limited; enter a convent or use the erotic charms of her body and beauty. Pimped by her pushy mother, she becomes a celebrated courtesan. She catches the eye of the ambitious Comte Du Barry (Melvil Poupaud), who, while professing love for her, also pimps her out to men who might help him rise further in society. “I don’t know what love is,” Jeanne wearily tells him, “but I know this isn’t it.”
She opposes his abuse of her and belittles her wishes to educate herself because she is platonically devoted to his teenage son, who she helps with his schoolwork. When Du Barry becomes aware that the King is interested in meeting Jeanne, he sees an opportunity for himself and eagerly puts her forward.
Jeanne is taken to the royal court, where she is subjected to gynaecological indignities before she can be considered suitable for the King. She is also meticulously trained in the rules of palace life by the King’s head valet, the uptight La Borde (Benjamin Lavernhe), who, over time, becomes her ally and staunch supporter against those who seek to drive her out of the palace.
La Borde instructs Jeanne never to turn her back to the King or to look him directly in the eyes (because it might be taken as ‘an invitation, by others in the palace). She does it all anyway but is soon ensconced in the King’s bed and, more importantly, in his heart. Jeanne’s disregard for royal protocol helps add to the scandal of the King’s liaison with her. After the death of the long-suffering Queen, Jeanne rises in her importance to the King to the point where she is Queen in all but name. However, despite the King’s evident and public support of her, she is never accepted by the rest of the royal family or the courtiers. She is routinely humiliated by the King’s daughters and later his new daughter-in-law, Marie Antoinette (Pauline Pollmann).
That the relationship between Louis and Jeanne will come to a sad end is, perhaps, inevitable, but what is unexpected is that, when it comes, it is genuinely moving. It brought me to tears, as it did others, from the sounds of the sniffles around me.
Although the public focus has been on Depp, Jeanne du Barry is, Maïwenn’s film. While as director, she is very assured throughout, as the lead actress, she takes longer to fully embody the role of the central character. In the early scenes, she seems unsure whether to play Jeanne, ultimately an uninhibited seductress captivating men around her or an oppressed feminist who wants to make her way in life. But as the film progresses, so does her presence on screen, and by the end, she looks and feels more comfortable in the role.
The chemistry between her and Depp is not especially evident, mainly because she is too keen to assert Jeanne’s independence, and he seems slightly detached from proceedings. Still, it is sufficient to make the ending touching and emotional.
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