Jeanne du Barry, Cannes review: Johnny Depp comeback film is surprisingly great

This year’s opening film in Cannes has been so engulfed in scandal that few had hope it’d be any good. Its writer-director-star Maiwenn first caused consternation by choosing Johnny Depp to play Louis XV, in what would be his first acting role since his hugely acrimonious divorce from Amber Heard – she famously accused him of domestic violence. Then, not long before the festival started, Maiwenn admitted that she had spat in the face of a journalist. He has since filed a complaint against her for assault. Many have asked: what on earth is Cannes doing?

Against the odds, Jeanne du Barry has turned out to be a subtle and well-crafted costume drama with plenty of satirical bite. It has more in common with Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon than it does Pirates of the Caribbean, with Depp giving one of his more restrained and effective performances as the king who falls in love with a courtesan. His Louis is a taciturn, melancholy but commanding figure with a dark side.

Jeanne du Barry (played by Maiwenn) is a young woman from a very humble background who, partly through chance and partly through her own enterprise, ends up at the Palace of Versailles. She is abominably treated by many of the men she encounters but has enough wit and humour to get ahead all the same. The screenplay, co-written by Maiwenn, lays bare the absurdity and chauvinism of court life. After the king takes a shine to her, Jeanne is forced to undergo a humiliating gynecological examination before a doctor pronounces her “worthy of the royal bed”.

As a director, Maiwenn pays exhaustive attention to costume and production design. There are none of the anachronisms that were found in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), which also played in Cannes, but there is the same obsessive interest in how characters dress and, in particular, wear their hair. The film also makes very inventive use of its Versailles locations, from its hall of mirrors to the many cavernous reception rooms where the overdressed aristocrats perform their bizarre rituals. Depp’s Louis XV is first seen at a distance, marching in a blue frock coat toward the assembled dignitaries. This is a very hierarchical world, in which every look, gesture and word has hidden meaning. Everybody is plotting against everybody else. It’s regarded as bad form to show emotion.

In its latter stages, the plot stutters a little. Although the French Revolution is only a few years away and many of the protagonists shown here are destined for the guillotine, court life is remarkably uneventful. There’s a constant jostling for power and influence – and that’s about it. The only real dramatic tension comes as Jeanne waits to see if the young and air-headed Marie Antoinette will deign to talk to her and thereby demonstrate that she is not a pariah.

Jeanne is the one character who gives in to spontaneous emotion. Everyone else is too bound by convention or self-interest to reveal their true feelings. As a love story, the film is therefore on the lukewarm side. The king and the courtesan have a deep affection for one another but don’t show much passion. The greater richness here lies in the film’s mordant humour and often monstrous characters.

What Jeanne du Barry will do for Depp’s faltering reputation remains to be seen, but he gives a solid enough performance. This time, at least, the Cannes doom-mongers were wrong.

Dir: Maiwenn. Starring: Maiwenn, Johnny Depp, Melvil Poupaud, Pierre Richard. 116 minutes

‘Jeanne du Barry’ is awaiting a UK release