Maïwenn and Johnny Depp Deliver Decadent Sexual Excess In ‘Jeanne du Barry’

Best of all, Johnny Depp honors the fact that this is not a film about him.

There’s so much to look at and think about that it is sometimes difficult to concentrate on the story, but a plot does emerge in the capable hands of actor-writer-director Maïwenn, who keeps the facts straight while chronicling one of the most shocking chapters in French history. Stéphanie Branchu, Why Not Productions

When I first heard about Jeanne du Barry, the sumptuous and extravagant French epic about the infamous, powerful but rarely mentioned final mistress of King Louis XV, with author-actress-writer-producer Maïwenn as the director and—hold on to something for balance—Johnny Depp as the king…the temptation to laugh out loud stretched from here to deadline. But truthfully, to my surprise, he does nothing wrong as the unconventional monarch, and there are even scenes when he emerges subtly poised, understated and dramatically triumphant. Best of all, he honors the fact that this is not a film about him, but about the love and devotion of an impoverished woman with no breeding and no social identity who, for a time, became the most powerful female figure in 18th-century Europe. 

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JEANNE DU BARRY ★★★(3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Maïwenn
Written by: Maïwenn
Starring: Maïwenn, Johnn Depp
Running time: 106 mins.

Madame du Barry has appeared as a character in other films about the French Revolution and was even the subject of a Cole Porter musical at MGM starring Lucille Ball. But what do we really know about her? Maïwenn has spent years hell-bent on unveiling her at last, distilling the obscured facts of her fascinating rise and fall into a lavish period piece in the style of Forever Amber, brimming with sex, romance, political intrigue and historical scandals framed by enough glamorous decors, sumptuous costumes, regal hairstyles and gold-leaf ceilings to take your breath away. There’s so much to look at and think about that it is sometimes difficult to concentrate on the story, but a plot does emerge in the capable hands of Maïwenn, who keeps the facts straight while keeping one of the most shocking chapters in French history alive and kicking.

Born Jeanne Vaubernier, the illegitimate daughter of a monk and a maid, a common low-class nobody in a brutally class-conscious country, she had no education, but learned about ambition early and spent her life determined to climb the 18th-century social ladder and escape her pathetic, underprivileged life the only way she knew how—on her back, in the beds of as many wealthy men possible. Raised by her mother’s lover, Mr. Dumousseaux, who sent her to a convent where she was grilled to avoid the debauchery that is the inevitable fate of disenfranchised girls, she failed the tests of innocence and purity and was expelled. After she left, without any kind of promising future, her mother took her to Paris, where she was hired by a widow with two sons to read aloud from works of great literature, a position that gave her an education in how to use her body and charm to seduce a wealthier, more worldly class of clients, including Count du Barry, whose influence brought her to the attention of Louis XV, a randy monarch with lusty tastes in women.

At first, “His Majesty” Johnny Depp is like a rock star costumed for a Halloween party, replete with high heel shoes, a powdered wig and bright red lipstick. But by the time the king takes a fancy to her and summons her to the royal bed in the palace at Versailles, it’s the courtesan who has grown downright homely in the persona of the director, Maïwenn. She is raw as biscuit dough, replete with an alarming set of distracting buck teeth, but how does a director inform a star she is wrong for the role of an enchanting whore because she’s not as beautiful as the furniture, when the director and the star are the same person?  

I’m pleased to report that despite her physical drawbacks, Maïwenn grows on you. Forced into a cash settlement to marry the notorious Count DuBarry, who has become little more than her pimp, the title of “Countess” provides Jeanne at last with enough respectability to move into the palace as the king’s favorite mistress. After the Queen dies, leaving her four daughters to mourn alone while Louis sates himself sexually, one princess leaves home and becomes a nun. In the resulting scandal, Jeanne is despised by the entire court, but there is a limit to how openly his disapproving advisors can admonish a king with a talent for beheading his detractors. So that is how a common harlot became a major player in the French monarchy, carefully coached to carry out the official rules and traditions of the country, learning how to dress like a lady, walking and curtsying like a queen, but slowly scandalizing society by openly riding horses with the king, caressing him publicly, refusing to exit the same room backward in his presence, and accompanying him everywhere arm in arm, wearing pants like a man. She was full of energy and defiance, and Louis, blind to reason, was so charmed and intrigued by her spirited arrogance that he decorated her with diamonds, deeded her a private estate of her own near the castle, and even rewarded her with a servant boy with whom she further scandalized the court by adopting him as her own surrogate son for the rest of her life.

Jeanne’s ultimate defeat occurred when the king died of smallpox, depicted in one the screen’s longest death scenes of all time, replete with Johnny Depp kissing his lover while covered with sores, opening doors for all of her enemies to end their insincere politeness and chase her out of Versailles for good. But the saga didn’t end there. Her decades of excess were judged important factors in the eventual French Revolution. After years in peaceful exile, She was finally befriended by Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI, but went to the guillotine in 1793 with both of them. The details of palace intrigue and political chicanery that led to the Revolution are sketchy, because Maïwenn’s script dwells more on the decadent sexual excesses of period scandal than the underlying historical forces that changed the world. But in a gorgeous period piece that is never boring, you can’t deny the entertainment value of Madame du Barry, one of the most captivating women since Madame Bovary, and all the more fascinating because she was real.

Maïwenn and Johnny Depp Deliver Decadent Sexual Excess In ‘Jeanne du Barry’