Depp Takes the Throne in Maïwenn’s Tasteful Historical Drama Jeanne du Barry

If history is told from the perspective of the victor, then the biopic has always been something of a consolation prize for the runner-up. In defeat, Napoleon has had a far greater impact on popular culture than his enemy the Duke of Wellington could ever have imagined. And for every depiction of Mister Churchill on the big screen, there must be at least ten of Herr Hitler and his ridiculous little moustache. From the birth of film to the present day, the biopic has been jerked this way and that way, like a rope in a game of tug-of-war. The genre has long vacillated between the territory of PR exercise and the ongoing re-evaluation of marginalised figures from throughout world history. In the latter category, we now have the titular royal mistress of Jeanne du Barry (2024) and all the gossip-worthy transgression she brings with her to the cinema.

French filmmaker Maïwenn pulls double duty with this historical drama, directing the film and starring in the lead role as the infamous lover of King Louis XV of France, rising up from humble beginnings to take her place at the Palace of Versailles. Maïwenn shows great taste and restraint in her depiction of du Barry’s libertine lifestyle. The sex life of the countess is not exploited for gratuity nor vulgarity. Her activities in the bedroom are treated matter-of-factly with little obtrusion from the camera, whether they serve as a means to an end or they are a sincere expression of passion. In stark contrast, the petty squabbles of the royal court are grotesque and ridiculous. When du Barry arrives at court for the first time, she immediately upends the social norms of her day and sends her peers scrambling for cover beneath their own sneering entitlement.

Maïwenn does a great job bringing her character to life, perfectly embodying her as a fly in the imperial ointment of the aristocracy. She brings a playful physicality to the role. Du Barry practically waltzes through the film while all those around her trod about unhappily in the refined manner that is expected of them.

Johnny Depp co-stars as the lustful / weary King. And it must be said, it’s been a long time since the controversial performer showed such admirable regard for moderation. Perhaps speaking in another language has forced his hand somewhat, though that isn’t to take any credit away from him, despite the knee-jerk impulse to do so. This is an oddly sympathetic portrayal of the King. He is endearingly self-aware, if unrepentant. While his subjects treat him as a God, the film shows us that his follies and foibles are all too human. As such, it’s only right that we should come to contemplate his reign primarily through his flagrant promiscuity — after all, there aren’t many monarchs who have a whole style of bed named after them!


It’s often said that the best art is born of limitations. All but exiled from Hollywood, Depp may yet reach new artistic heights in foreign-language films, his showboating instincts hemmed in by the necessity for a back-to-basics approach. But whether or not a wide audience would care enough to take note of such a return-to-form is another question. Like King Louis XV himself, Depp’s name is now synonymous with scandal.

Maïwenn establishes a clear style for the film right from the film’s opening montage, making excellent use of voice-over narration and all manner of gorgeous wide shots — how else could she have captured the gross majesty of Versailles? Indeed, the period and the setting are captured beautifully through extravagant set design. Ultimately, this is a down-to-earth treatment of the decadence that led to the French Revolution and of a society that seems to have revolved almost entirely around what happened in the boudoir.

Maïwenn has cited Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) as the greatest influences on Jeanne du Barry. But the romantic intrigue at the heart of the story is highly reminiscent of the work of director Ernst Lubitsch, who could famously say more about sex with a closed door than an open fly. Lubitsch previously brought Jeanne du Barry’s life story to the big screen himself as a German silent film, Madame du Barry (1919).

As in Lubitsch’s finest work, the christening of fresh bed linen serves as a gateway here to a better class of life. But if Jeanne du Barry appears at first a pragmatist climbing the ladder of success, she reveals herself to be a true romantic in the end, dedicated even to a man who is as disloyal to her as he was to his wife before her. Furthermore, she commits herself to the betterment of her adopted son and to her young servant. But her high ideals do not protect her from the onslaught of history. As Jeanne climbs from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs, a ticking clock is set in motion. Every glimpse of wealth and splendour is a reminder that a revolution is on its way. And not even the filmmakers’ affections for du Barry can save her from the guillotine.

Jeanne du Barry arrives to irish/UK cinemas April 19

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