Jeanne du Barry (2023)

Jeanne du Barry, which opened the Cannes Film Festival 2023, is co-written, directed and starred in by Maïwenn, also starring Johnny Depp, in a glossy historical French biopic.

The King and I

by Alexa Dalby

Jeanne du Barry

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

As co-written and directed by Maïwenn, Jeanne du Barry is more soap opera than feminism. The title character, a famous courtesan, had a spectacular rags-to-riches story in an age of ostentatious elitism and misogyny but the film is as frothy as its costumes.

The huge budget (for France) of $22.4m is up there on screen – there’s even filming in Versailles’ sumptuous Hall of Mirrors, in various chateaux and with a huge cast in Versailles playing the multitudes of the French court in pastel-coloured silks and satins.

The film is bookended by a voiceover giving the history of Jeanne’s life from her early years, even then a spectacular beauty, to her end. Though not overtly political, it’s set in the dying days of the French monarchy, and we feel the court’s excesses can’t last, that surely the Revolution must be just around the corner.

Jeanne was exploited by men, though she also used them to gain advantage, the only option available to her. Thanks to a sham marriage she is presented at court, where the novelty of her naturalness, spontaneity and smartness charms jaded King Louis XV (played by a primped and powdered Johnny Depp). She passes intrusive tests to become, first, his mistress, then his official mistress, though he had others. With her new position’s access to unlimited wealth, that must have been like winning a fortune in the Lottery today.

They fall apparently genuinely in love, their behaviour scandalising stuffy, formal conventions in Versailles, where Louis had controversially installed her. Jeanne is schooled in court etiquette (how to curtsey correctly, as if she wouldn’t know) by dryly straight-faced, helpful chamberlain La Borde (Benjamin Lavernhe).

Jeanne is credited historically with political insight and innovations ahead of her time but her achievements are trivialised: her main achievement in the film seems to be popularising striped clothes, despite otherwise always wearing eye-catching white, even down to cross-dressing.

When Louis gives her a little black page boy as a present – like a pet – she apparently treats him kindly, but she does not think to free him as her slave. Louis’ three daughters are portrayed as caricature pantomime Ugly Sisters in contrast to Jeanne’s despised Cinderella. When doomed Marie Antoinette (Pauline Pollmann) thrillingly arrives from Austria to marry the Dauphin (Diego Le Fur), there is seething rivalry between her and Jeanne which follows the court’s arcane rules.

It is unlikely that actress Maïwenn would have been cast as Jeanne if she was not the director, though she is on record as saying she would never try to do both roles again. Her celebrity casting choice of Johnny Depp was headline-grabbing, and may generate interest because of him, but also controversial, given his recently lost court case, and it’s debatable if he has noticeable chemistry with Maïwenn to make their love affair believable. As a raddled, world-weary Louis he speaks and does very little, but what little French he speaks isn’t bad: he has said that he and Vanessa Paradis spoke French at home when they were together.

Jeanne du Barry opened the Cannes Film Festival 2023. It is very competently directed, sticks to the well-known facts, although it might send you rushing to Wikipedia, and is more enjoyable than you’d expect.

Jeanne du Barry premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 19 April 2024 in the UK and Ireland.

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