As opening night films go, Jeanne du Barry is safe (French, costume drama) and starry (Johnny Depp returning to feature films after three controversy-ridden years). The film, directed by filmmaker-actor Maiwenn, who also plays the titular role, is the fictionalized account of the true story of a courtesan who became the favourite mistress of King Louis XV and sparked a scandal that rocked the 18th-century French court. Maiwenn said in an interview that her visual template was Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
Jeanne du Barry is stately without being visually sumptuous – despite the Palace of Versailles being a key location (while watching, I kept imagining what Sanjay Leela Bhansali might have done with this backdrop and this story). Maiwenn delivers a strong performance as the defiant, passionate Jeanne. And while purists are likely to balk at a famous and troubled American actor playing a French king, Depp’s casting works. I have no way to judge his French accent but Depp’s frayed charisma now has a tinge of sadness and damage that sits right. And yet, the singular ache of this story of a woman, who wills her own rise in a stratified and gendered society, never fully blooms. What transpires is messy and tragic but we remain at a distance emotionally. It doesn’t help that few of the characters, aside from the leads, have flesh to them. Even the entry of Marie Antoinette (played by Pauline Pollmann), Jeanne’s legendary rival who weakened her position in the court, barely dials up tension. Jeanne du Barry stays serviceable and unlike its leading lady, much too tame.