Seventeen years, that’s a long time to prepare a film, and it’s how long actress-director Maïwenn has spent on “Jeanne Du Barry,” which inaugurates the Cannes Festival today, a film that’s a nod to Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” which was shown here in 2006, but also a nod to the past since real-life Marie-Antoinette became Louis XVI’s wife, ending the courtesan’s favored place in the court.
It is thanks to “Marie-Antoinette” that Maïwenn discovered the Du Barry character, a courtesan who’s eager to rise socially, overcome the limitations placed on her. Du Barry quit her education at age 15, she got thrown out of a convent later because she had a tendency to read literature, of the adult kind. When she gets introduced to the court of Louis XV, the king, gloomy and disillusioned, takes a shine to her, a passionate affair develops between the two after that, but it will not be to everyone’s taste, the king’s court is leery of the woman’s unsavory origins. The brewing scandal led to du Barry’s decapitation.
Eschewing the biopic in which Du Barry’s destiny gets recounted birth to death Maïwenn opts instead to focus on her tumultuous romance with King Louis XV. To embody the relatively B-list monarch (when compared to the formidable sovereigns that have reigned over France, like Louis XIV) Maïwenn set her sights on Johnny Depp, an audacious choice, in the eyes of some, present company excluded, in light of his recent legal tribulations. Depp back in the U.S. is, for all intents and purposes, persona non grata. But Maïwenn cast Depp well before the Amber Heard trial.
What’s of interest about this film is the similarities between Jeanne Du Barry and this film’s director. Trying to tease out similarities between a writer and his character or a filmmaker and her title role is delicate, sometimes it works and sometimes it’s happenstance. Maïwenn also left school when she was fifteen, an outsider who has made her place in show-business she’s nevertheless not a part of the system, she’s not in the club, not anymore like Jeanne du Barry was part of the royal court, her heroine, who imposed herself willy-nilly, with some audacity but especially iconoclastic naturalness, she didn’t wear powdered wigs and dressed like a man.
“Jeanne Du Barry” was shot on location in castles around Paris, Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles, among them.
The resulting film is strong if conventional, no surprises to be had, yet the beautiful interiors of Versailles, Depp’s sullen and ironic Louis XV and Maïwenn’s Du Barry, a commoner but also a breath of fresh air in the exalted realm of the Versailles court, they’ve imposed themselves on me. When you watch “Jeanne Du Barry” pay attention to Laborde, actor Benjamin Lavernhe steals everyone’s thunder with this role.
An enjoyable film.