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Jeanne du Barry at Cannes Film Festival: Depp makes a good Louis XV but this is a right royal disappointment

 (Handout)
(Handout)

Cannes has a reputation for opening its festival with something dire – Nicole Kidman in Grace being one of the main culprits. It often wants something glamorous (The Great Gatsby) and regularly leans towards French films. Maïwenn’s Jeanne du Barry is both glamorous and French, but is it dire, as Cannes tradition dictates? Well, no it isn’t, but it isn’t very good either.

The film follows the heroine of the title (played by the mononymous Maïwenn, who also directs) from her bucolic youth as the illegitimate daughter of a friar and a cook, all the way to Versailles and the court of Louis XV (played here by Johnny Depp, no doubt glad to be talking about something other than his former marriage). Educated in a convent at the behest of her mother’s kindly employer Dumonceaux and transformed into a voracious reader of what is surely unsuitable literature for such an establishment, she is eventually, inevitably, booted out.

But, as the voiceover narrator asks: “Aren’t girls who are from nothing ready for anything?” The answer to that would be a pretty resounding yes from Jeanne, who throws herself into a life of prostitution with gusto, eventually meeting Count Jean du Barry (Melvil Poupaud), who brings her into his household, and then Louis XV who is instantly smitten. Jeanne is summoned to Versailles and her life as a royal courtesan begins.

Maïwenn and Johnny Depp as Jeanne du Barry and Louis XV (film handout)
Maïwenn and Johnny Depp as Jeanne du Barry and Louis XV (film handout)

It is at Versailles that the film begins to fall apart. Louis XV’s daughters appear to have stepped out of a panto production of Cinderella: they are cruel, unattractive and bitter in the extreme. All the good people are good-looking: the Dauphin is a dopey hunk and his future bride, Marie Antoinette, is a lovely innocent abroad.

When the king gifts Jeanne a black Bengali boy, only her detractors are racist and cruel. And while the director clearly wants to celebrate Jeanne’s disdain for court etiquette – looking the king in the eye; dressing as a man; wearing outrageous new fashions; running – it soon becomes wearing.

But the film looks gorgeous. The costumes are fabulous and the set design lovely. There is a wonderful moment, during Jeanne’s first assignation with the king, when she caresses a gold statue of Louis as a child and later caresses his actual face. You can’t help but think of Depp, that gilded youth whose looks may have waned but whose charm here is undimmed.

After films such as Mortdecai and the Pirates franchise, it is great to see Depp in subtle and quiet mode – more Colonel Joll of Waiting for the Barbarians and less Jack Sparrow – and in French to boot.

Still, this offers little to the already replete genre of costume dramas set in the waning years of monarchic dynasties, and despite all of Jeanne’s cavorting in free-spirited fashion, it doesn’t offer a new take on a historical period (Pablo Larraín’s Spencer or Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage being obvious comparisons).

It’s a disappointment after Maïwenn’s previous films, which include the gritty Polisse, about a journalist covering a police juvenile division, or My King, for which Emmanuelle Bercot won best actress in Cannes in 2015. Maïwenn is a gifted and intelligent director but, like her heroine, she is not at home in Louis XV’s court.

Jeanne du Barry screened at the 76th Cannes Film Festival; the UK release date is TBC