‘Jeanne du Barry’ Review: Johnny Depp and Maïwenn Team Up for a French Drama That’s More Tasteful Than Torrid

The films of Maïwenn, like Maïwenn herself, tend to be divisive.

When they’re good, such as in the writer-director-actress’ breakthrough second feature, Polisse, they’re filled with hotblooded ensemble performances that channel the kinetic energy of John Cassavetes. When they’re not, such as in her last effort, DNA, they feel like overblown arthouse selfies where Maïwenn is the only star.

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Either way, they hardly leave you indifferent, which is why the director’s biggest project yet, a $22.4 million biopic of the legendary 18th century French courtesan Jeanne du Barry, can seem so surprising. Sumptuously made and with enough jaw-dropping costumes — several of them courtesy of Chanel, one of the film’s sponsors — to warrant a separate runway show, Maïwenn’s lavish feature is also, well, kind of bland.

It has a great setting, with many scenes shot in and around the real Palace of Versailles, and a great setup, with du Barry’s rags-to-riches-to-Roi Louis XV biography providing the main plot. But once all of that’s in place, Maïwenn doesn’t really do much with it.

Even the casting — some would say stunt casting — of Johnny Depp as the king offers a few early thrills and then mostly yawns, with Depp dishing out what feels like a total of a dozen lines in respectable French, while otherwise remaining mute. His performance isn’t bad, and neither is Maïwenn’s in the lead role. But the two of them, like the movie, rarely get our pulse racing. With all the recent controversy surrounding Depp, not to mention Maïwenn herself, the result of their collaboration is a handsome period piece that feels both flat and shallow, and certainly far from any scandale.

There have been several other attempts to bring du Barry’s story to the screen, including the Ernst Lubitsch silent film Passion, starring Pola Negri, and the William Dieterle-directed Madame du Barry, starring Dolores del Rio. More recently, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette featured Asia Argento as the king’s infamous mistress, in a role Maïwenn claims inspired her to one day direct her own project about the courtesan.

Working with writers Teddy Lussi-Modeste and Nicolas Livecchi, she’s basically put together a classic Cinderella story decked out in outrageously expensive outfits — one that focuses almost exclusively on du Barry’s desire to make it rich and stay that way, and rarely on the social and political issues of the Versailles bubble where she thrived.

In fact, the film’s most intriguing section happens before we even get to the palace, when we follow a young commoner named Jeanne Bécu, the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress mother, as she goes from aristocratic benefactor to benefactor, and then from lover to lover, in what remains one of the most impressive social climbs in history.

Maïwenn directs these early sequences with a detached and cool authority recalling Kubrick doing Barry Lyndon — clearly another major inspiration, right up to this film’s dry voiceover narrating all the major events — and she paints a brief but convincing portrait of a young woman left with only two choices: the Bible or the bedroom.

To boost her ascension to the top, Bécu was smart enough to choose the latter, and soon enough she falls into the hands of the Comte du Barry (Melvil Poupaud), a witty playboy who begins to pimp her out to other noblemen. Jeanne’s beauty and sex appeal make her a legendary mistress around Paris, but in reality it’s her intelligence that charms all those rich and royal men, who fawn over her like a fresh piece of meat.

Perhaps the most powerful scene in the whole movie is one that takes place in the first act, when Jeanne, a voracious reader and highly capable tutor, is trying to get some peace and quiet with a book in the bathtub — until the Comte comes in and dunks her under the water out of toxic spite. It’s one of the only times in the film where Jeanne’s predicament as a lowly woman in a world of petty, privileged men feels visceral.

Intense outbursts of verbal, and sometimes physical, violence have been a key part of Maïwenn’s cinema, but once Jeanne makes it to Versailles, where the Comte brings her in the hopes of raising his own status vis-à-vis Louis XV, it’s all about tame rituals that are occasionally broken. The director takes great pains to point out some of the French court’s more absurd traditions, such as an invasive gynecological exam of Jeanne’s privates, or the fact that you can never turn your back on the king — a gag that gets repeated so often, it quickly becomes tedious — but that’s as profound as it gets.

Once Jeanne catches Louis’ eye, and the king is duly smitten, the remainder of the movie chronicles their long (actually, six-year), supposedly romantic love affair, which is never as compelling as it could be. For one thing, the two hardly speak to one another, so much are they caught up in the endless tasks of the palace that are managed by the king’s trusted first valet, La Borde (Benjamin Lavernhe, a steely, constant presence).

A quick look at Wikipedia shows that La Borde was in fact a musician and composer of comic operas, but you wouldn’t know any of that from a film that tends to stick to the surface of its characters. The same goes for du Barry, who, one can learn, got quite involved in domestic and international affairs during her reign as top mistress, but whose major accomplishment here is starting a fashion trend of striped dresses.

To add more drama to the third act, Maïwenn concentrates on the rivalry between Jeanne du Barry and Marie-Antoinette (Pauline Pollmann) — a rivalry induced and compounded by Louis XV’s daughters (India Hair, Suzanne de Baecque, Capucine Valmary), depicted here as the conniving evil offspring of a Disney movie. As that plot takes over, the film is squeezed dry of any remaining substance, and by the time the king is on his deathbed, riddled with smallpox, Jeanne du Barry feels like a cartoon.

It’s unfortunate this happens, given the marriage of subject matter and Maïwenn’s talents as a director, which are best showcased this time through the high level of craft — whether it’s the costumes by Jürgen Doering, the polished photography of Laurent Dailland or the sets by Angelo Zamparutti capturing the extreme wealth of the time. Tying up the package is a seductive score by Stephen Warbeck (Shakespeare in Love) which, more often than not, fills in for emotions that fail to be generated on screen.

The film’s scope is so ambitious, perhaps it became too much for a director who usually hits her best notes through improvisation with a closely-knit cast, creating memorable scenes that suddenly turn explosive. There’s none of that here, and the paradox of Jeanne du Barry is that, despite the daring life it’s based on and the daring casting of the semi-blacklisted Depp, this is a movie that plays it too safe.

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