Johnny Depp was once Hollywood royalty: if he wasn’t quite the king of the American film industry, he was certainly one of its dashing princes. But his crown slipped. Following his high-profile legal battles with his ex-wife, Amber Heard, Hollywood may be more reluctant to cast him in blockbusters these days. But they do things differently in France. Not only did Maïwenn choose Depp to play Louis XV in her costume drama, Jeanne du Barry, but the film was chosen to open this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was a controversial choice — and it was even before Maiwenn was sued by a magazine editor for assault. If the Festival organizers wanted to declare that they weren’t caring about popular opinion, that was certainly a way of doing it.
More like this:
– 12 of the best movies to date in 2023
– Why are blockbusters badly lit?
– Films too bad for the cinema
It’s a shame that the film itself is so banal. In addition to directing and co-writing, Maïwenn plays Jeanne Bécu, a woman from a modest background who became the king’s favorite mistress in the 1760s. This is the kind of story that was told with a revisionist and feminist pungency in Marie-Antoinette by Sofa Coppola, La Favorite by Yorgos Lanthimos and Corsage by Marie Kreutzer, but Maïwenn opted for a more traditional and solid approach that lacks both wasp spirit and earthy authenticity . She methodically takes us through the key episodes of Bécu’s life from rags to riches, but leaves a narrator to describe most of the dramatic moments. The meter-tall palaces, robes and wigs are suitably fabulous, but not in a way you’ve never seen a hundred times before.
It’s disappointing, because there are signs early on that the film could have a more mischievous spirit. Bécu is shown as a girl who is expelled from a convent for reading racy books, then she is shown again as a young woman who moves to Paris and establishes herself as a sought-after courtesan, with the help of his aristocratic pimp, Le Comte du Barry (Melvil Poupaud). He arranges for her to meet the king, after which she nonchalantly submits to a gynecological examination by the royal doctors, and chuckles at the palace protocol taught to her by a strict but kindly patient butler (Benjamin Lavernhe): no one are only allowed to turn away from Her Majesty when they leave a room, he explains, so they have to click and click backwards in small, shuffling steps.
In these intro scenes, Depp’s casting suddenly comes into its own. Here’s someone who knows what it’s like to have obscene wealth, and an entourage of lackeys who cater to his every whim, but never give him a moment’s peace. With a charming half-smile and a roll of his eyes, he shows us just how bored Louis is with the rigmarole, and we can see why he might be drawn to the irreverent Jeanne. Unfortunately, his irreverence does not last. Once settled in the Palace of Versailles, Louis’ adult daughters (caricatured as Cinderella’s naughty sisters) are outraged that a commoner is strutting around. But her radicalizing influence amounts to… uh… starting a fashion for wearing striped dresses.