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Cannes 2023 review: Opening film 'Jeanne du Barry' is a royal bore

Maïwenn and Johnny Depp in 'Jeanne du Barry'
Maïwenn and Johnny Depp in 'Jeanne du Barry' Copyright Why Not
Copyright Why Not
By David Mouriquand
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The Cannes Film Festival’s opening film sees controversial French director-actress Maïwenn and equally controversial Johnny Depp star in 'Jeanne du Barry', about the royal affair between Louis XV and the titular courtesan which caused quite the scandal in Versailles...

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Before the start of this year’s opening film, French writer-director-actress Maïwenn’s Jeanne du Barry, the press got to watch the opening ceremony - which concluded with the following George Cukor quote:

“Cinema is like love – when it’s good, it’s wonderful, when it’s not good, it’s not bad anyway.”

Lovely words, but bear in mind that good old George didn’t have to sit through Jeanne du Barry.

This overblown vanity project masquerading as a biopic tells the rags-to-riches-back-down-to-rags-and-decapitation story of Jeanne (Maïwenn), the illegitimate daughter of a monk and a cook. “She came from nothing,” we’re told in the opening voiceover. “But aren’t girls who come from nothing ready for anything?”

The sub-porn script doesn’t get much better from here.

After having been rejected from the convent for discovering eroticism through forbidden books, Jeanne heads to Paris (“the capital of all hopes and all dangers”) to become a courtesan. She quickly climbs the ranks and earns a place as Louis XV's (Johnny Depp) favourite. But the presence of “the creature” as her detractors label her threatens to bring scandal upon the crown, at a particularly delicate point in French history...

Libertinage. Scandal. The looming French Revolution.

From the sounds of things, you could expect torrid debauchery, high-stakes intrigue, or at the very least a raising of the pulse through exuberance and romance. After all, Jeanne du Barry's grave branded her “sin incarnate”...

But no. This is Maïwenn on a mission to hog the screen as much as possible, at the risk of doing absolutely nothing with the story of a fascinating figure - one most recently seen in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. The action never lingers on Jeanne’s hardship or her time in the boudoir and instead oscillates between familiar against-all-odds love story and tepid Versailles send-up.

Indeed, when Maïwenn does decide to lean into the ridiculous pomp of the court (“C’est grotesque!” “C’est Versailles!”), there are hints of a promising satire that never was; however, without any mention of the historical context or a few frames suggesting the looming Revolution, the excesses of French aristocracy don’t end up meaning all that much. And when the king’s three cartoonish daughters (India Hair, Suzanne de Baecque, Capucine Valmary) appear on screen to disapprove of their tarnished reputation now that Jeanne is on the scene, their presence suggests an OTT comedy that would have been a far better watch. The trio come off as 18th century Mean Girls and give Cinderella’s stepsisters a run for their money; but once again, they are just there to get a bit of screen time before we’re back to Maïwenn acting all rebellious and trying to muster some chemistry between her and her leading man.

Speaking of which, Johnny Depp isn’t half bad in his first post-trial film, and can convincingly speak French. Granted, he was once married to Vanessa Paradis and has the sum total of about 20 lines here, but his casting ends up making some sense, especially when you consider Jeanne du Barry ’s theme of status in the public eye and tarnished reputation. It’s just a shame that the potentially daring casting doesn’t pay off, as there’s no discernible spark between him and Maïwenn.

Jeanne du Barry isn’t the worst film you’ll see all year – far from it. It does precious little and says less about anything. In fact, with the royal stench of the recent coronation still wafting through the air, the surprising central takeaway of this bland Bridgerton knockoff could be that the old-world privileges of the French monarchy somehow come off as less antiquated in the 18th century than in current-day Britain.

“C’est grotesque” indeed. 

Stay tuned to Euronews Culture for more reviews from this year's Cannes Film Festival.

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