The Cannes Film Festival picked what some perceived as a controversial film for its opening this year. Jeanne du Barry stars Johnny Depp whose recent court case attracted plenty of attention and then shortly before the festival opened, the journalist Edwy Plenel made some allegations about an assault he was the victim of by director Maïwenn. However, while cinema does not exist in a vacuum (and more on that later), what is the film actually worth?
Jeanne du Barry relates the true story of the eponymous mistress of Louis XV and their scandalous relationship in the eyes of just about everyone around them, the court, their advisers, his family... The film starts as a conventional period biopic with the youth and formative years of Jeanne but thankfully the script has some confident narrative ellipses, giving the audience just enough to understand her personality and early trials before taking us right to the main story, her romance with the King.
A quick learner in the way of the world after a marriage of convention in nobility and with an avid thirst for knowledge, Jeanne is still not quite ready for what Versailles and its arcane rules entails. Yet this innocence is what charms Louis XV as Jeanne promptly and inadvertently breaks one of the cardinal rules she was just taught when she first meets him in a very amusing moment.
Many scenes concern the intrigues of Versailles and as entertaining as they are and for all the talent of all the supporting cast, there is a feeling this has been done before and better, in fact not so long ago with Ridicule which opened Cannes in 1996. There is also the odd clumsiness and some confusing directing choices: the appearance of two of the daughters of the King who take an instant dislike to Jeanne and whose scenes descend into pantomime as well as ome strange visual clues that are either unfortunate mistakes or strange metaphors and it is hard to decide what is worse.
However the film is at its best with the intimate scenes between Jeanne and the King, lively and spirited. There is a genuine and mutual affection and curiosity from their very first encounter and this is also when the two actors are at their best, with a great chemistry. The feeling that many aspects of the story mirrors the actors' lives grows stronger as the film unfolds as well.
While Johnny Depp does quite not manage to pull the regal side of the monarch (and it may well be an intentional acting direction, to strip him away from that aspect to show the man instead), his performance is full of restraint and subtlety. As a powerful man surrounded by sycophants and whose past hurts are etched on his facial expressions, there is a moving vulnerability to his performance as someone who finally finds happiness and his later years.
Maïwenn as Jeanne has put a lot of herself in this story and character, you could say this is quite the ego trip but if audiences can accept that then there is a lot to enjoy. Jeanne is an outsider no matter what she does, from the lower class she comes from to the court that never accepts her. There is a playful modernity to her performance in contrast to the rest of the cast, a nice touch as she tries to make her character's challenges timeless and relevant.
The actress/director has what you could call a troubled youth, with a career starting young and surrounded by powerful men who took advantage of her yet she is also a strong opponent to the #MeToo movement. Hence her connections with a real life character who had to use her charm and wits to survive in a male orientated world but one in which few women really willing to support her either, seeing her as a loose cannon. She has even cast her son Diego Le Fur as Louis XVI, one of the very few characters sympathetic to her Jeanne and one could read a lot into this! All these personal elements makes her Jeanne du Barry all the more compelling.
Review by Laurent de Alberti
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Official Selection, Out of Competion.
Jeanne du Barry. France/UK 2023. Directed by Maïwenn