Johnny Depp makes a return to the big screen in Maïwenn’s 76th Festival de Cannes-opener Jeanne du Barry (2023), performing in the French language and delivering a low-key performance a million miles away from the drunken shtick of Jack Sparrow and eccentric characters for Tim Burton.
It is a curious project for Depp. After we all got a glimpse behind the celebrity curtain during his trials for domestic abuse, he selected a film about a famous example of love at first sight, and one in which he plays a golden god among mortals, whose every whim and need is catered to.
Jeanne du Barry (Maïwenn) was the commoner who rose to the top of 18th century French society by seducing men with lots of money. As she says in the film, she thought it better to be the mistress of an aristocrat than the maid doing his dishes. Driven by a taste for the good life and an escape from poverty, Jeanne is spotted by the King of France, Louis XV (Depp), at court, and he’s immediately smitten. Together, the pair take delight in scandalising the country, kicking back against norms and conventions, and she quickly becomes his ‘favourite’.
Jeanne du Barry, a muddled film in both storytelling and aesthetic approach, is at its best when highlighting the absurdity of obscene privilege. Like Depp in real life, Louis XV spends his days meeting people he doesn’t know, is fawned over by strangers, commands respect and power but is restricted in his freedoms, and surrounded by hangers-on. The parallels sort between unhappy king and troubled movie star are clear as day.
Is this a story of truest love blossoming in a strange place? Is Jeanne a proto-feminist rebel? Is it really all about the curse of celebrity? It tries to cram all these elements into the mix and ends up a collapsed soufflé; a failure because Maïwenn is a clumsy filmmaker prone to pale imitation (the Barry Lyndon-style lighting) and unimaginative staging of scenes.
At heart, Jeanne du Barry is an invitation to watch two film stars, who do share a certain chemistry it must be said, host a self-pity party on film. For they are romantic dreamers, you see, they believe in love as Jeanne and Louis did. Fetch the box of tissues. Let them eat cake.
© Stéphanie Branchu / Why Not Productions/Provided by Festival de Cannes press kit