They instructed her no one must turn their back to the king, but she did so anyway. They warned that she was not to look Louis XV directly in the eyes, lest others take it as “an invitation,” but she ignored Versailles’ advisers on this point as well, defiantly meeting the king’s gaze.
Jeanne Bécu was not the type of woman to do as she was told. In this respect, divisive French actor-director Maïwenn can relate, casting herself as the courtesan-turned-comtess in “Jeanne du Barry,” a sensitive and surprisingly low-key portrait of the French monarch’s last mistress. That Maïwenn saw fit to engage tabloid-embattled Johnny Depp as “her king” is just one of the many hurdles she set for herself — but then, no one embarks on such a project with the intention of pleasing her critics.
Kicking off the Cannes Film Festival just two weeks after Charles III’s coronation across the Channel, “Jeanne du Barry” offers a relatively provocative take on all things royal, though it’s super tame compared with Canal+’s tawdry “Versailles” series or Albert Serra’s recent “Liberté.” The illegitimate daughter of a monk and a cook, Jeanne rose as high as someone of her station might, earning a place as Louis XV’s “favorite” in his final years. There’s no small risk in publicly identifying with a historical figure whose greatest achievement was holding her own against the haters — especially when one of those enemies was the mythic Marie Antoinette (played here by Pauline Pollmann).
The critics will come with knives sharpened, but let it be said: Maïwenn is a major filmmaker, and “Jeanne du Barry” demands to be taken seriously. As the end credits rolled, an older woman openly wept behind me, taking several minutes to pull herself together. Clumsy as the film can be, Maïwenn taps into the emotional core of a most unusual relationship, such that we mourn how and why it eventually dissolves.
Although the biopic focuses primarily on the chapter of Jeanne’s life spent with Louis, it doesn’t reduce the title character to being just one of his many lovers. If anything, the king is presented as her conquest. Drawing from at least a decade of obsessive research into her character, Maïwenn opens on Jeanne’s childhood, when her beauty is already exceptional enough to inspire artists. She poses for a handful of them before deciding, “It’s my body,” and from that point forth, Jeanne proves quite deliberate about the ways she wields her charms.
After employing two well-matched younger actors, Emma Kaboré-Dufour and Loli Bahia, to play her in the film’s slightly simplistic prologue, the director steps in as Jeanne, flashing her signature smile like a deadly weapon. In this regard, Maïwenn could be France’s Julia Roberts, though “Jeanne du Barry” is no “Pretty Woman” fantasy. Luck plays a part in her fate, but Jeanne’s success is largely the result of strategy, as men who seek to benefit from her advancement — including her benefactor, the Comte du Barry (Melvil Poupaud), who marries her so she can have a title befitting the court — scheme a way to introduce her to the king.
That meeting eventually takes place at Versailles, in the luminous Hall of Mirrors, and though it’s easy to imagine Louis being smitten by the composed and self-confident Jeanne, audiences will likely still be deciding how they feel about Depp in the role when it happens. Far more than a stunt, picking such a major star to play the French king feels apt, for there must be a palpable power differential between Louis and his latest infatuation.
After Jeanne catches the king’s eye, she is summoned back to the palace and examined by his physician, who declares her “worthy of the royal bed.” With a kind of knowing humor, Maïwenn acknowledges the absurdity and indignity of this process. To her surprise, the king’s head valet, the rigidly uptight La Borde (Benjamin Lavernhe), does not insist upon a “taste.” Instead, he serves as a Henry Higgins-like ally through her years at Versailles, schooling Jeanne on how to curtsy early on, and later taking her side, when others have organized against her.
Maïwenn’s not one to shy away from confrontation, whether on screen or off. From the institutional critique of “Polisse” to her pre-#MeToo portrait of an abusive relationship in “My King,” her films have all been blisteringly personal, present-day shockers. Watching the king’s rituals from behind a one-way mirror, Jeanne reflects Maïwenn’s own perspective on power: From a young age, she’s had access to the inside track, but that doesn’t mean she ever felt accepted.
In “Jeanne du Barry,” it’s the women — first the king’s daughters (India Hair, Suzanne de Baecque, Capucine Valmary) and later the dauphine — who make her feel most unwelcome, even as they adopt the singular “du Barry style“ (courtesy of Chanel). While their jealousies and gossip may seem modern, Maïwenn rejects the anachronistic sneakers-and-sweets sensibility Sofia Coppola brought to “Marie Antoinette.” Instead, she takes a dramatic step in the opposite direction, embracing a stately, classical approach, which includes shooting on film and scoring with an orchestra — and of course, defying those who’d sooner never see her co-star work again.
For his part, Depp delivers his lines in well-turned French, wearing fine powder and a stiff white wig, and yet he seems strangely uncomfortable in the role — adequate but not especially engaged. Depp’s the kind of player who delivers practically every performance with a wink, so it’s odd that even when his Louis is actually supposed to be winking (at Jeanne), the sparkle isn’t there. That curious lack of complicity saps the chemistry we crave between the two leads. Whereas other movies (like “Marie Antoinette,” in which Asia Argento embodied Jeanne du Barry) treat the comtesse as an object of ridicule, here it’s her wit and insouciance that prove most effective. But in attempting to reclaim this woman’s reputation, Maïwenn’s film feels unexpectedly tame — it risks turning a would-be scandal into a royal bore.
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