A battle took place at the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday evening between a movie and a lot of stuff that didn’t have much to do with the movie.
And the movie, “Jeanne du Barry,” just wasn’t strong enough to put up much of a fight.
So the 2023 Cannes opening night won’t be remembered as the night when writer-director-actress Maïwenn put a fresh spin on French royalty with her story of King Louis XV’s most celebrated and scandalous courtesan. Instead, it’ll be the night when various protesters managed to turn the opening of Cannes into a referendum on whether Johnny Depp should be cast in movies in the aftermath of his bitter court case with Amber Heard (where the jury mostly sided with him) and why Maïwenn spit on a French journalist in a restaurant recently.
That’s what dominated the Cannes news cycle leading up to the opening-night screening of a movie that just isn’t potent enough to grab any headlines on its own. “Jeanne du Barry,” shot in 35mm in locations that included the actual Palace of Versailles, is handsome but largely inert; it’s got lots of style but precious little energy, leaving it to an ill-advised narrator to take us through the story and drop bon mots like “Aren’t girls who care for nothing ready for anything?” and “What good is innocence if others harbor guilty desires for you?”
In a way, the movie came out of another Cannes premiere in which a different female director and American actor took the story of the 18th century French court and twisted it. In 2006, Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” played at the festival with Kirsten Dunst as the doomed queen. It famously drew scattered boos — and it also introduced Maïwenn, an actress just beginning her directing career, to the character of Jeanne Vaubernier, the illegitimate daughter of a monk and a cook who would become a mesmerizing libertine and lover to the Compte du Barry and then to Louis XV, who installed her in Versailles as his favorite.
If Coppola was tempting the Cannes boobirds with her ultra-modern indie-rock take on French history, Maïwenn is flying in the face of today’s culture by casting Depp, an actor who is persona non grata in many circles. It’s hard to say that Depp’s performance justifies the fuss, because the movie’s all about Jeanne, not Louis; we see him through her eyes, and he spends much of the movie lounging in opulent settings without really doing much. (At times it seems as if his hair, alternately a royal wig and a stringy mess that reveals the real Louis, does most of the acting.)
Particularly after the death of Louis’ wife and the mother of his children, Jeanne’s presence in the court is an affront to the established order. Courtesans are fine, of course, but not ones who sometimes dress like men, who have checkered pasts and who deliberately opt to ignore all those thousands of rules about what to wear and what to say and how to never turn your back on the king.
She’s a particular threat to Louis’ four daughters, who for the most part are so cartoonishly evil that they’d be twirling their mustaches if they had any. But again, for a movie that’s supposed to be about passion and scandal and intrigue, “Jeanne du Barry” is studiously subdued — which might be a filmmaker’s comment on how the elaborate rituals at Versailles suffocated any life in its inhabitants, but muffling the most interesting thing about your story to make a point is still muffling the most interesting thing about your story.
As an actress, Maïwenn dominates the movie while rarely making us think that Jeanne and Louis are true soulmates. (If she had done that, we wouldn’t need the narrator to tell us about it.) The one person who has figured out how to show real personality underneath all the period strictures is Benjamin Lavernhe as Louis’ long-suffering and very sharp head valet; he never raises his voice, but there’s more bite and intrigue in his quiet dealings than in the rest of the film.
There’s a scene late in the film where Marie Antoinette is complaining that she’s not allowed to see the King, who is dying of smallpox. La Borde explains that smallpox is very contagious, whereupon she snaps, “This is grotesque!”
“No,” he replies. “It’s Versailles.”
It’s just too bad that there’s not more grotesquerie in the film. “Jeanne du Barry” might have set out to do that, but it settled for pretty.
By the way, the audience at Tuesday night’s press screening did not boo it they way they did “Marie Antoinette” 17 years ago. Instead, the film was greeted with muted and brief applause, while the premiere audience next door gave it the usual standing ovation.