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Jeanne du Barry is strong on poking fun at the stultifying rituals of the French court. It also delivers a solid performance from Johnny Depp, returning to work after a scandalous trial. Maiwenn’s casting of tabloid-embattled Depp as the chief royal mistress may have surprised some, but not everyone.

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Director Maiwenn

Director Maiwenn, who starred in the film alongside Johnny Depp and has been a vocal critic of his #MeToo behavior, doesn’t shy away from confrontation on-screen. From the institutional critique of her first film, Polisse, to her pre-#MeToo portrait of abusive relationships in My King, Maiwenn’s films are not for the faint of heart.

Here, she tackles the 18th-century period epic about a sexy courtesan who slept her way to the top of French society. Jeanne du Barry stars Maiwenn as the illegitimate daughter of a monk and cook who rose to prominence in the royal courts thanks to her seductive powers.

She eschews the Disney-esque swagger of other courtesans, such as Marie Antoinette (played by Pauline Pollmann), in favor of a more nuanced approach. She may lack the gravity-defying pomp of other courtiers, but her sultry charm makes for a convincing portrayal.

Casting

After earning plaudits for films like Polisse and My King, Maiwenn is hardly giving herself a chance to rest on her laurels. The director also writes and stars as Jeanne du Barry, the courtesan whose flamboyant style scandalized Versailles. But her attempt to infuse the ibomma film with modern feminist sentiments smacks of opportunism.

Johnny Depp, back in the limelight after a tabloid-swirled trial with ex Amber Heard, gives an unsurprising but solid performance as Louis XV. He is a sexy and seductive hunk, with an early understanding of hypocrisy that serves him well throughout the movie. However, it’s hard to buy into the idea that he fell for Jeanne without considering his production line of mistresses or her own desire to hang on to her position. This leads the heroine to come across as a doormat who has no ambitions of her own beyond hanging onto her status. Melvil Poupaud and Pierre Richard make evocative supporting turns.

Story

After Sofia Coppola’s controversial 2006 film Marie Antoinette opened Cannes, Maiwenn, a French actress just beginning her directing career, took the less-told story of Jeanne du Barry and her mesmerizing allure to Louis XV to the glitzy Croisette. But while her intentions might be honorable, the results are often questionable.

After years of filling Count du Barry’s pockets, Jeanne seizes an opportunity offered by one of her clients to present herself to the notoriously selective king and is instantly smitten. From there, it’s all downhill as she manipulates the royal court with a mix of pantomime flair and a ruthless ambition that isn’t quite so convincing.

While the dazzlingly extravagant palace sets and opulent costumes are lovely to look at, they’re insufficient to compensate for an ever-present sense of pointlessness. And while Maiwenn and Johnny Depp do their best with what they’re given, it’s clear that the chemistry isn’t there. The result is a mild soap opera that may entertain those who enjoy horse-drawn carriages and opulent apartments, but isn’t much more than that.

Performances

The Cannes-opening Jeanne du Barry doesn’t quite hit the heights it aspires to, but there’s plenty to savor in this sumptuous costume drama. Maiwenn, who also wrote the screenplay, stars as Jeanne, the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress who was sent off to the nunnery but soon found she was too sexy for them and escaped to a Parisian brothel. Her talents there gained her a thriving reputation as a skilled lover, attracting the attention of Count du Barry (Melvil Poupaud, entertainingly louche) and the Duc de Richelieu (Pierre Richard, the supple physical comic from The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe).

While it might seem like stunt casting to cast Johnny Depp as King Louis, he brings his A game, showing no signs of ring rust. He’s backed by an impressive ensemble that includes Maiwenn, Poupaud, Benjamin Lavernhe, Noemie Lvovsky, Pascal Greggory, and India Hair. The movie’s visual feast and satirical bite make it well worth watching, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its classy peers, from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette to Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favorite.

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