THE STORY – The life of Jeanne Bécu who was born as the illegitimate daughter of an impoverished seamstress in 1743 and went on to rise through the Court of Louis XV to become his last official mistress.
THE CAST – Maïwenn, Johnny Depp, Benjamin Lavernhe, Melvil Poupaud, Pierre Richard, Pascal Greggory & India Hair
THE TEAM – Maïwenn (Director/Writer), Teddy Lussi-Modeste & Nicolas Livecchi (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
There’s always been a bit of controversy surrounding French Countess Jeanne du Barry. As seen in director Maïwenn’s Cannes opener “Jeanne du Barry,” the mistress to King Louis XV outraged stuffy royals simply by wearing men’s clothing or a striped dress – let alone what happened behind closed doors. Ironically enough, the film’s stars also have attracted some drama, including a recent alleged assault involving Maïwenn toward a journalist and Johnny Depp’s courtroom fiasco involving his ex-wife Amber Heard.
Given how much media coverage has been dedicated to the controversies between the two filmmakers leading up to the festival, it was a guessing game about what “Jeanne du Barry” would actually be like. Finally, we have an answer. The film tells a grand-scale rags-to-riches story of royal proportions, bringing out a powerful performance from director/star Maïwenn. With its focus on a provocative royal figure, “Jeanne du Barry” doesn’t choose to go as outlandish or anywhere near modern as Sofia Coppola’s tale of another problematic royal in “Marie Antoinette.” But Maïwenn’s film still manages to sweep audiences into 1700s France with its story about sexuality, royalty, and what it’s like to be the odd one out.
Maïwenn opens on Jeanne’s childhood, where we learn “she came from nothing” as the illegitimate child of a monk and a cook. But as the narrator suggests, “Aren’t girls who come from nothing ready for anything?” Jeanne sure is, as she gains an education from her mother’s employer and later joins a convent. However, in both these situations, Jeanne’s sexuality is a problem for others, leading to her literally being kicked to the curb. So she decides to use it to her advantage to climb the social hierarchy ladder.
First, there’s Count du Barry (Melvil Poupaud), a playboy and noncommittal type who Jeanne chooses to stay with because of his son. But he has greater plans in store for Jeanne. Because of how charming this young woman is, he thinks she’d be a great addition to King Louis XV’s (Depp) list of mistresses, hoping she could be his favorite. Once their meeting happens, it’s clear there’s something there, as the King silently stares at Jeanne for several seconds, perplexed and so intrigued by her presence in Versailles, and walks away with the faintest smirk. It then leads to a humorous sequence where Jeanne is checked for any itches, pains, and whatever else down there before she can be considered worthy of entering the royal bed.
Maïwenn and Depp share plenty of great moments in the film, particularly ones that bring welcomed humor. In fact, the unexpected laughs, from deadpan glances from Depp’s King Louis XV to a running gag about how people should never turn their back to the King, are easily the best thing about the film. One that stands out follows Jeanne and the King’s first night together, where he showcases his absurd morning ritual and makes funny faces at Jeanne, who watches from another room. On the other hand, their romantic chemistry might not be all too convincing for some as Depp doesn’t give a fully all-there performance most of the time – he basically makes the same face the entire movie – although his attempt at doing it all in French should be commended.
But as Jeanne becomes more involved in the King’s life, particularly after the queen dies, the mistress faces an uphill battle to be respected or tolerated by his daughters (India Hair, Suzanne de Baecque, Capucine Valmary) and others in the royal circle. His daughters make a mockery of her any chance they get, and later the dauphine, Marie Antoinette (Pauline Pollmann), also makes her life miserable.
Rather than throw a pity party, Maïwenn delivers a fierce performance that shows all the haters Jeanne doesn’t care what they think. She gives them things to gossip about, like when she openly canoodles with the King at dinners or wears her hair down, and seems to love causing an uproar. Instead of taking the Coppola modern approach to rebelling, Maïwenn has her royal stay true to the 1700s and as sophisticated as others while still ruffling a few feathers along the way. She also finds solace in the King’s head valet, La Borde (Benjamin Lavernhe), who initially goes from an uptight right-hand man to a beloved friend who stands next to her in her most trying moments. He is another welcomed addition to the film and should have been a more fledged-out character.
Production and costume designs stand out as they bring the very luxurious and grand French royal culture to life through flower-covered walls, dramatically tall ceilings, and gowns of all shades and patterns. Stephen Warbeck’s score also lets the classical music era shine through his stringed orchestral arrangements.
There’s quite a lot of historical and royal information that “Jeanne du Barry” packs in its nearly two-hour runtime, which ends before the dramatic French Revolution that eventually claimed Jeanne’s life. But it’s still an interesting watch from start to finish, given Maïwenn’s direction and performance. Though she doesn’t totally push the envelope regarding rebellion in the monarchy, Maïwenn still gives a spirited portrayal that makes viewers empathize with Jeanne and understand her plight.