Cannes 2023: Maïwenn’s Great Hair Goes to Great Lengths in Jeanne Du Barry
Visually delightful 18th century romance carried by Maïwenn’s screen presence and Johnny Depp’s tongue-in-cheek return
Jeanne Du Barry Review
The 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival opened last night with Maïwenn’s historical 18th -century drama Jeanne Du Barry, starring the director herself in the title role alongside a bewigged, powdered-up Johnny Depp as King Louis XV, supported by some renowned French actors such as Pierre Richard and Pascal Grégory. A regular at Cannes, Maïwenn has slowly earned her stripes as a respected director, having previously won the Jury Prize for her police drama Polisse in 2011, a far cry from her early life as Luc Besson’s teenage wife. Going up the red carpet ahead of last night’s opening gala with not a hint of cleavage, make-up free apart from lipstick, loose, naturally flowing hair, Maïwenn was not only the epitome of the effortless chic we like to associate with French style, but also revisited, perhaps deliberately, one of the main traits of her character in the film: lowly-origin Jeanne Du Barry’s natural look, the antidote to Versailles artifice, that so captured the heart of King Louis XV, is a main talking point in the film.
Based on the real life story of Jeanne Bécu, the last official mistress of King Louis XV, Jeanne Du Barry was apparently inspired by Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie-Antoinette and took Maïwenn a decade of research into the era and the historical character (she struggled with imposter syndrome), as well as several years of script development, and the fortuitous casting of Johnny Depp as Louis XV (after initial plans for one French actor after another fell through). The film is largely set in the palace of Versailles and follows the relationship of Louis XV with his final official mistress, a lowly commoner of illegitimate birth called Jeanne Vaubernier, later countess Du Barry. Maïwenn recalls falling in love with the persona of countess Du Barry upon seeing Coppola’s film and that much is obvious in the way she endows her central character with all manner of virtue: Jeanne is bookish (reading in the bath is a favourite pastime); a loving, dedicated mother figure to her stepson Adolphe and to Zamor, a young African page gifted to her by her royal lover; a seductress of irresistible charisma, who is nonetheless never vulgar, an innocent counterforce to palace intrigue and malicious gossip. Small wonder then that king falls for Jeanne at first sight at an appearance strategically orchestrated by Jeanne’s aristocratic lover and pimp, count Du Barry played by Melville Poupaud, to the outrage of the royal family and Versailles courtiers. The film follows Jeanne’s tortuous rise from humble birth through the odd prostitution gig to favourite royal mistress, and later her fall from grace after the king’s death.
Perhaps Jeanne Du Barry’s character suffers somewhat from this surfeit of likeability that Maïwenn was obviously keen to impart – despite the abundance of screen time and characterisation elements, Jeanne remains something of two-dimensional mystery in the midst of the luscious postcard that is Versailles. In this sense, the director’s stated intention of a mise en scene recreating the atmosphere of an 18th century painting works marvellously. The film flows elegantly as a visually stunning, beautifully composed tableau with fairly simplistic dialogue (perhaps unexpected in a period drama) a straightforward script with palace intrigue kept to a digestible level (not necessarily a drawback), and an easy-going love story without much romantic drama (he says “Move in”, she says “OK”, they more or less live happily ever after). Maïwenn herself is the backbone of the film, with her sheer physical beauty and grace the focus to most fames. The emphasis in her acting is on the uninhibited naturalness and childlike smile of Jeanne, and she does imbue the character with a great deal of charisma. A main theme is her unrelenting refusal to conform to the artifice of courtly standards of beauty to the shock of Versailles high society. Her preference for simple dresses, loose hair and minimalistic make-up is a talking point for evil tongues.
The choice of Johnny Depp as Louis XV may appear somewhat awkward and indeed there was initial scepticism about Depp’s casting as the French monarch, not least because of his detectable accent. In addition, rumours circulated about tensions on the set between the director and the Hollywood star. However, I would not say that the paring of the two actors has suffered from these, for a certain jarring between the two is to the benefit of the plot – a main theme is Jeanne’s being a misfit, even an outcast in the court, and the central narrative gist of the film is the fact that she is so different from the king and from the typical courtesan. Of course, Johnny Depp’s rakish charisma can be relied upon in any role he picks and it is on display here in the John Sparrow-y winks of his Louis XV. The irony he brings to the role, even his unfrenchness, are refreshing moments of comical flair which serve the film well. The relative dearth of his lines is not necessarily a drawback, for example in a comic scene where he bursts in on his daughters on account of their being chronically mean to Jeanne, gives them a stare of death and storms out without a word. The same goes for the array of caricaturesque characters in his entourage -the grotesque royal daughters and bewigged ministers are a fine counterbalance to the overwhelming natural perfection of Jeanne Du Barry’s character.
Jeanne Du Barry was a deliberate departure from Maïwenn’s hitherto directorial history, one not without risk. Overall, the simplicity of the plot is balanced by the exquisite picturesque quality of the film and the charisma of the two central performances. A pretty picture to open the festival.