Cast: Johnny Depp, Maiwenn, Benjamin Lavernhe, Pierre Richard, Melvil Poupaud, Pascal Greggory
Rating: Three stars (out Of 5)
In Jeanne du Barry, French actress-director Maiwenn teams up with troubled Hollywood star Johnny Depp to travel back into French history and tell the story, in a new light, of a courtesan who rose to a position of eminence in Louis XV's court and, in the process, helped the King regain his zest for life. The result is a mixed bag that alternates between the inert and the intriguing, the leaden and the agreeably quirky.
The onscreen combination of Depp and Maiwenn – chemistry isn't its strong suit but that is just as well – appears to serve a very definite purpose – as the King, the American star is distant enough from the world of Maiwenn, both as actress and director, to make the disparity between Louis XV and the illegitimate daughter of a monk and a cook on the power scale seem all the more unbridgeable.
The enterprising woman uses her charms and the help of a few men to make her way into the life of King Louis XV in his final years. She does so without allowing her own freedom to be undermined. She is told never to show her back to the royal. She defies the diktat. She is told to never to look the King in the eye. She does not to let the instruction deflect her off her path.
In other French films in which Jeanne du Barry has appeared, she has been portrayed in a negative light. Maiwenn, whose Polisse had the authorities up in arms, seeks to rescue the confident concubine from ill fame and turn her into a fully realised rebel who rises above the limits that her birth and her “life of harlotry” impose on her.
Count du Barry (Melvil Poupaud) marries Jeanne so that she has the status that would allow her access to the King. Louis XV's friend and chief valet Le Borde (Benjamin Lavernhe) schools her in the ways of the royal court but when she strays, he watches her with a mixture of bemusement and consternation.
As a character study and a period drama, Jeanne du Barry has a few inspired passages that bear testimony to the filmmaker's courage to take on difficult subjects and not succumb to the temptation to seek safety in the anodyne. Polisse (2011), which competed for the Palme d'Or in Cannes, had the authorities up in arms. My King (2015, also in Cannes Competition, homed in on an abusive relationship framed in a story about a medical crisis.
Crowd-pleasers do not come easy to Maiwenn. Despite its visual flourishes, Jeanne du Barry isn't cast in the mould of a film looking to disarm the audience. But the film has its share of moving passage all right, but for the most part it does things that look and feel designed to give the audience something to mull over.
In a scene, Jeanne is medically examined by the royal physician as part of a process to ascertain if she is “worthy of the royal bed”. Maiwenn plays it with a straight face, which emphasises the sheer absurdity of the situation. Much of what is passed off as essential rituals of Louis XV's court is simply one man's whims bordering on the grotesque.
At another moment, responding to another of the King's decrees, somebody says: “It's grotesque.” The riposte sums up what Maiwenn's Jeanne has to surmount in her struggle to hold on: “No, it's Versailles.”
The hurdles that Jeanne must contend with are not just related to the rules of the royal court. Members of the royal family, notably Louis XV's daughters, Adelaide, Sophie and Victoire, and, later in the film, Marie Antoinette, who marries the heir to the throne, heap constant scorn on Jeanne. But she is a tough nut to crack and carries on regardless. Having won the King over, she is fearless and uncompromising.
Jeanne du Barry is essentially an exploration of power. While it focuses primarily on the mistress' life with the King, it also takes pointed jibes at royalty and its manifestations in the years leading up to the French Revolution. The film is a portrait that underscores Jeanne's ability to stand her ground against all adversity, while it also throws light on the vacuity of pomp and pageantry when they are devoid of meaning.
Depp, behind plenty of make-up and under a wig, isn't necessarily cut out for the role. But the actor gives it his best shot even when genuine depth eludes him. The French lines he is given to deliver are sparse; the ones that he intones carry signs of extra effort and that takes away from the spontaneity of the performance.
A French actor may have brought greater authenticity to the part, but it is apparent that without the presence of Depp, Jeanne du Barry and Maiwenn's own interpretation of the titular heroine would have lost some of its heft.
Also, one might wonder if the director would have done better to cast someone else in the role that she plays, but it is easy to see why she shoulders the onerous dual responsibility of directing and acting. It helps her achieve cohesion between purpose and delivery. That helps Jeanne du Barry tide over the occasional clunkiness that creeps into it.
By no stretch of the imagination is Jeanne du Barry a royal treat, but it isn't a royal mess either.