Maïwenn’s French period drama Jeanne du Barry is the perfect opening salvo for the 76th Cannes Film Festival. It is as glitzy and gaudy as the festival itself, with its vacuous politics drowned out by the thunderous sound of it slapping its own back.
Maïwenn plays the titular Jeanne, a young woman brought up from humble beginnings who trades her wit and beauty into an opulent career as a courtesan. She is soon the celebrated queen of the boudoir with ever-richer lovers vying with each other to win her heart. This leads all the way to a royal audience with Louis XVI (Johnny Depp) at Versailles. No sooner has she bedded him with a combination of irreverence and verve, than she is installed as the Roi’s favourite mistress, much to the scandalisation of the court – who “whisper-whisper” their reactions perfectly audibly – and particularly the king’s three daughters.
Jeanne du Barry is beautifully photographed by Laurent Dailland and has a stirringly sumptuous score by Stephen Warbeck as calorific as the feasts on display. As you can tell, when a critic is reduced to praising the photography and the score it’s all mere politesse because the film isn’t up to much. So let’s instead load the tumbrel and head for the guillotine with all-haste. The beauty is part of what condemns it. Jeanne du Barry is Barry Lyndon written as Bridgerton fan fiction. In every scene, the director, co-writer and star places herself amidst the uglies of the caught as the swan. Every sequence is aimed at impressing on us her style and cleverness, though her wit seems to consist of repeating the same joke five or six times – with the questionable comic theory that if at first a joke doesn’t succeed, try and try again.
And trying it is. It’s the equivalent of receiving a beautiful box of elaborate chocolates only to find inside empty wrappers because the giver has scoffed the lot. Depp is more than stunt casting but he quills it in, with a monosyllabic moodiness which is happy enough to just be employed. Somewhere. Anywhere. Benjamin Lavernhe plays the loyal servant La Borde who guides Jeanne through her transformations and learns to love the upstart. Think Julie Andrews in The Princess Diaries. Except The Princess Diaries was better, as was Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (inevitably nodded to here).
The contemporary irrelevance of the film is at its most painful when it deludedly tries to make Jeanne into a heroine of sorts. First of all as a portrait of a sex worker: there is nothing beyond the heart of gold cliche. Her rise is entirely dependent on men and her worst opponents caricatured as ugly women. It’s like a Harvey Weinstein biopic that insists the #MeToo-ers are just sore losers. When we see another woman the king is using for sex, she is so hungry she steals some croissants before leaving. It’s played for laughs. And it isn’t even sexy, with a dishonest chasteness that makes it a film for all the family.
Worse still (if you can you believe it) is the racism of the piece when the king gifts Jeanne a black boy page. She proves her anti-racism by being slightly less racist than her competitors. The character has nary a line and the only agency he gets is seen as a betrayal added as a coda. Ungrateful!
It’s almost traditional for Cannes to open with a raspberry (Grace of Monaco and The Great Gatsby spring to mind), but Maïwenn’s film is transcendentally out-of-touch with the moment. There are protests on the streets of Paris; Cannes itself is accused of being a festival of abusers and we’re told to eat this cake of a movie. As for Depp, whose industry rehabilitation many feared/hoped this film would kickstart, Jeanne du Barry feels like a fitting punishment.
The 76th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 16-27 May. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty