Cannes 2023 Review: In JEANNE DU BARRY, Johnny Depp Returns in Subdued Supporting Turn
Johnny Depp, performing in French for the first time, plays Louis XV in a historical biopic about the king's mistress.
When a significant narrative strand of your film hinges on whether one woman will speak with another woman, you know it is a story of immense pettiness.
But that is entirely true to form for scheming, feuding royals in 18th-century France. Between 1589, when the Bourbon dynasty came to power, to 1792, when it met its brutal, bloody demise, the French Court was a hornet’s nest of trifling intrigue: who’s up and who’s down in the King’s favor, and which royal will alter the fortunes of a courtier by condescending to speak with them. The fact that the two women mentioned above are the infamous Marie Antoinette and Madame du Barry only gives slightly more heft to a frustrating conflict, however true to life it is.
Jeanne du Barry is a largely conventional, by-the-numbers, birth-to-death biopic of the titular historical figure, complete with an omniscient third-person narrator. The character holds some fascination in popular culture, not because of any political influence she wielded but for her norm-busting presence at the French Royal Court.
She was a maîtresse-en-titre to King Louis XV, or in conventional speak, his chief side piece for a number of years, in a long line of several others. Her arrival sets off a years-long stratagem by the royal family and the prime minister to plot her downfall.
What incenses them about Jeanne is not so much her past as a prostitute but her low, common birth. Then, as now, the ultimate barrier dividing people was not profession, but class.
Maïwenn, who also writes and directs, plays Jeanne with a smile-y, modern joie de vivre, that helps cut through some of the mustiness that might be inherent in material like this. Her casual, loose performance style is entertaining but deliberately opaque. She refuses to provide any true insight into what is really driving Jeanne moment to moment and paints her in very general, broad strokes.
This approach extends to the overall film, which feels like it is missing several key dramatic beats needed to flesh out the story. We get the bones of the rivalry between Jeanne and the other courtiers but never get a sense of what is at stake.
Even the key relationship that sets everything in motion -- the one between Jeanne and Louis XV -- is glossed over in a few quick scenes. We are led to believe that Louis XV expended immense personal and societal capital to keep Jeanne at the Court, yet we never get a sense of what he sees in her or what keeps them together, besides the presumably great sex.
That said, Jeanne Du Barry is not without its pleasures. Maïwenn does not have illusions about how ridiculous the French monarchy was and has great fun lampooning its more arcane conventions, though we wish she had the courage to incorporate this self-awareness into the character mechanics too.
The elaborate ritual of preparing the king every morning is straight out of a Versailles tour, dramatized here for your pleasure. Consistently amusing is the buffoonish backward walk courtiers have to adopt to avoid ever turning their back to the king, exaggerated here to parodic levels.
There is also some welcome wholesomeness mixed into what might seem to be a tawdry tale. In fact, the film veers PG despite the subject matter.
The sordid, steamy love affair at the heart of this chaste film is depicted without any nudity or sex scenes. Jeanne’s relationship with her two adopted sons, Adolphe and specially Zamor, the Black page “gifted” to her, is depicted with sincerity. The Zamor material also allows the film to make some anti-racism pronouncements; perhaps ahistorical and geared towards a modern audience but nevertheless welcome.
Jeanne Du Barry is also a consistent pleasure to look at. Shot on location at Versailles, the film has the casual visual elegance and period detail that the French are able to pull off nonchalantly and without much expense, it seems. Costumes, hair, and make-up are consistently stunning, though a couple of Jeanne’s dresses seem to be repeated too often, perhaps a budgetary constraint. Maïwenn also has a great pictorial eye and her classical framing yields a stately film with impressive photography from DP Laurent Dailland.
Adding immense value is composer Stephen Warbeck’s portentous, dramatic score. Warbeck won the Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love and demonstrates once again that a great score can actually add to the production value of a film and make it seem more expensive than it is.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the film had been scored with existing classical music, as films of this wont often are. It was thus a pleasant surprise to see Warbeck’s name as the composer in the credits and you couldn’t miss it. In an interesting move, Maïwenn affords Warbeck first place in the end credits: Warbeck’s name appears before the director or the writers or any of the producers or actors!
On-screen, supporting Maïwenn is a cast of French cinema veterans all doing creditable work. Melvil Poupard plays Jeanne’s pimp and dummy husband with rakish sensitivity. Pierre Richard provides lecherous charm as one of the king’s inner circle. Pauline Pollmann makes for an appropriately beautiful and snippy Marie Antoinette. Though it has to be said Maïwenn’s teenage son, cast as Louis XV’s grandson, the Dauphin and future King XVI, is extremely stiff, like a beautiful Ken doll mannequin.
Jeanne Du Barry also marks the return of embattled star Johnny Depp to the big screen after he was fired by Warner Bros. and declared persona non-grata in Hollywood. Whether he will work again in the US remains to be seen -- the sentiment prevails that he is unhirable -- but the French have no problem rehabilitating American pariahs and Depp, against all odds, finds himself once again in a major film production.
There is also a lot of anticipation for Depp’s first performance in French. And given all the build-up around the film, it feels almost churlish to report that he’s merely fine in it. Though the way his role as King Louis XV is set up gives credence to some rumors surrounding the film.
We can debunk one rumor, though, which claimed he was only in the film for 15 minutes. He’s in it for considerably longer but it’s definitely a supporting part and not even the second biggest part after Maïwenn’s; that would be Benjamin Lavernhe, excellent as La Borde, the King’s right-hand man.
Even so, Depp curiously doesn’t speak as much. And when he does, he does so in the most simple phrases imaginable, making it seem like his dialog has been severely curtailed to sentences he can convincingly utter.
It is rather distracting seeing entire scenes where other characters have more elaborate dialog and it seems like Louis XV would also be speaking at length but Depp delivers an entirely silent performance, performing certain gestures and then withdrawing. If only the French are going to hire Depp in the future, he definitely needs to be more comfortable delivering French dialog at length.
Jeanne du Barry is a curious beast, it somehow feels too long while also feeling like it could benefit from greater length to flesh out some of its key relationships and conflicts. Nevertheless, it is a well-produced, watchable enough picture with solid techs and the portrayal of a historical figure that many audiences might not know about.
Jeanne du Barry premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2023.