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“Jeanne du Barry” Remains a Cipher

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 1st, 2024

Jeanne du Barry (Maïwenn, 2023) 2 out of 5 stars

The French do costume dramas well. Given the nicely preserved locations from their past, it’s no wonder that period pieces seem to come so easily. Still, there’s more to making an engaging work of cinema than merely placing it within an accurately reproduced historical backdrop. And though Jeanne du Barry has all the gorgeous trappings one would expect in a film like this, set in 18th-century France during the reign of Louis XV, director and star Maïwenn (My King) never quite manages to give the story life.

Instead, we look upon this artifact much as one might an objet d’art in a museum, which might be pretty to look at but has seen better days. Not that everyone isn’t trying to bring some energy to the table; their efforts are sadly sluggish, however. It’s a good mirror of the decaying aristocracy of that time, if also fairly dull.

l-r: Johnny Depp and Maïwenn in JEANNE DU BARRY ©Fathom Events

Maïwenn plays the titular character, who was born an illegitimate child of working-class parents. Through numerous transformations, presented here as often involving sexual abuse by older men, she evolved into an educated and worldly courtesan, eventually catching the eye of France’s King, then in his late fifties. Despite many difficulties at court (Louis’ unmarried daughters hated her, and did their best to make sure everyone else followed their lead), she became the favored (and last) mistress of the sovereign, enjoying riches and status that should have been impossible, given her lowly birth.

It’s an usual tale, for sure. Still, throughout this tedious exercise we wonder what Maïwenn hopes to achieve by recounting it. We meet the young Louis XVI (he who would later lose his head during the French Revolution) along the way, in addition to his soon-to-be wife, Marie Antoinette, but there is very little sense of history (beyond the décor) to give the narrative weight.

Johnny Depp in JEANNE DU BARRY ©Fathom Events

Nevertheless, there is fun to be had in watching Johnny Depp (Waiting for the Barbarians), who plays Louis the elder, perform in French. Maïwenn wisely limits his dialogue, yet he manages fairly well with what words he does speak, sounding distinctly European if not always entirely Gallic. However one might feel about the Depp-vs.-Amber Heard trials, the man is a fine actor.

As is Maïwenn and everyone else involved in the movie. But nothing much comes of it, beyond some occasionally diverting moments. Who was Madame du Barry (a Countess no less, thanks to an advantageous marriage) underneath all the seduction she had to learn to rise above her origins? After watching Jeanne du Barry, that remains an open question.

l-r: Maïwenn and Johnny Depp in JEANNE DU BARRY ©Fathom Events

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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