Credit: Laurent Dailland
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film Horizon Line

Jeanne du Barry — Maïwenn

May 6, 2024

The newest and biggest film of Maïwenn’s directorial career, Jeanne du Barry, a film whose subject is the eponymously named final mistress to Louis XV, will forever be linked with the personal lives of the two biggest names behind the camera: Maïwenn herself and Johnny Depp, who plays the king. Both danced through the 2020s riddled by scandal and receiving public ire: Maïwenn, the famous French-Algerian actor-turned-director, has found herself lodged in the nastiest corners of the Internet for her criticism of #MeToo and, of course, for spitting on a journalist in 2021; Depp’s issues require no rehashing for the non-Martian among us. The film doesn’t do much to separate itself from these offscreen issues, and instead leans into the troubles of its cast, perhaps Depp most keenly, with the main narrative catalyst being a mixed concern of gossipping, libel, and the disapproval of the women of the court toward Jeanne (played with adoration by Maïwenn) for her iconoclasm of royal pleasantries, etiquette, and restrictive customs.

The story of Jeanne’s rise from the outskirts of the common folk to the official mistress of the King of France shoulders in it a toothless though enjoyable mockery of the royal court. With Maïwenn’s politically calculated premise, her character more or less sets her intentions to sleep her way to the top, and does so with her head held high. She knows the king can discard her at any moment and so depends on his satisfaction for social security. And by God does she love to make the man happy. Many of the men of the court are indeed grubby — not all men though: the young Dauphin (Diego Le Fur, Maïwenn’s son), the future Louis XVI, adores and protects her from the scowling looks of the other women and opens doors for her that would otherwise remain shut. But more than the men, it’s the women whose exorbitant and wooden expectations of royal femininity are most troubling: because Jeanne enjoys sexual pleasure — and because she chooses to use her body for gain — the other courtly women despite her.

This writer has never seen an episode of Bridgerton (and gun to head, never will), but Jeanne du Barry strangely resembles what the uninitiated might imagine a bizarrely asexual version of the show would feel like. (The Saudi Arabian non-profit Red Sea Film Foundation helped fund the film and may have something to do with that; no complaining here — it seems unlikely the mass audience in France or anywhere else in the world is salivating for Depp cinematic intercourse at this point.) Jeanne makes a mockery of the “tiny steps” expected of anyone who turns their back on the king, and when she wears a white dress with her hair down, she elicits a reaction from her courtly peers that would be more reasonable if she had walked to the dining table in the kind of outfit one might wear to a sex party. At every turn, the favored mistress coyly breaks silly customs and (apparently?) paves the way for the revolutionary iconoclasm to come years later (though she ends up a victim of the Revolution). And in Jeanne du Barry‘s presentation, the most sympathetic people in court are the most powerful: Louis XV, his son and future heir, and the valet de chambre (Benjamin Lavernhe). Any actual criticisms related to the sexuality, the patriarchy, and the powerful’s misuse of power have no place in this film, and that makes the general negative portrayal of everyone else feel light and insubstantial.

Maïwenn saves the worst of the other women in the sovereign’s entourage for a scene where a Black African slave by way of India, Zamor (Ibrahim Yaffa in youth, Djibril Djimo later) pops out of a box as a gift to the mistress. Without emancipating the boy, she treats him more like a person than the others and comes to love the boy in a sort of superior-subordinate way. The other women make no efforts to disguise their ugly xenophobia and bigotry; one of them even expresses surprise after recognizing that he, too, has a pink tongue. But both outcast from the day-to-day shenanigans at court, Zamor and Jeanne become inseparable. While the more blatant racism of the other women serves Maïwenn as a director by affording the film the easy judgment associations that accompany such a presentation, a more subversive intention is to use the Black skin of the actors and the subordinating way in which the courtly look at the character to extend easy empathy to Jeanne. It would be wrong to call this misguided directorial decision careless because it’s inherent to how the two are shot: frequently in two shots and with a close physical proximity or even intimacy that disregards the period’s customs around public display of affections. Maïwenn very intentionally creates a visual association between Jeanne and Zamor, but then regrettably uses the association as ammunition in her real-life, boomery tirade against people speaking badly about people with power. (It’s probably helpful to know that the most likely reason Maïwenn spit on the journalist was related to his publication’s instrumental role in reporting the rape allegations against her ex-husband Luc Besson.) She further proves her hideous intentions with the rewriting of history in the end credits text to make Zamor, who in reality later joined the revolutionaries and helped arrange for the mistress’s execution, a traitor to her and France instead of the victim of a de-humanizing enslavement by the family. Indeed, the depiction of Zamor tells us a lot about Maïwenn’s authorial intent, which seems wholly indiscernible from some generic form of anti-wokeness as a political stance.

And it’s only after acknowledging all of these insurmountable asterisks that one can admit that Jeanne du Barry still succeeds in many respects. Magnetically watchable and ceaselessly alluring, Maïwenn is ironically electric as a modern woman in a world about to come into modernity. Jeanne refuses to ever entertain the “tiny steps” and other fully idiotic niceties of high-class life, and it’s just as easy to imagine the less interesting version of the character who must learn to break with the mold rather than coming with her own plaster right from the beginning. Her confidence sells the character and, in turn, the film. Jeanne du Barry lags when the plot sidelines her at the king’s deathbed, though Depp, whose role is smaller than one might initially think, manages well enough considering French is a secondary language for the actor. And in fact, the film’s best scene is an all-timer in his career. In direct opposition to the usual hysterics and mania Depp has long traded in, an angry king storms into the entertainment quarters of the future Queen Marie Antoinette (Pauline Pollmann) and those sympathetic to her, and without saying a word Depp’s simple and precise facial expression gets his message across with clarity: treat my lover like royalty or you’ll never be a queen. He has words at his teeth, ready to jump at the throats of Marie and the others like a violent assailant, but instead, he bites his remarks and lets his eyes do the talking. Anything he might have said would have cheapened the moment. We can only pray and hope that Depp and Maïwenn learn this very same lesson.

DIRECTOR: Maïwenn; CAST: Johnny Depp, Maïwenn, Melvin Poupaud, Pascal Greggory;  DISTRIBUTOR: Vertical;  IN THEATERS: May 2;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 56 min.