JEANNE DU BARRY – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



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Maiwenn as Jeanne du Barry and Johnny Depp as King Louis XV, in JEANNE DU BARRY. Courtesy of Vertical

Johnny Depp as France’s King Louis XV? Speaking French? Yeah, I want to see that. That was my first thought on French director/star Maiwenn’s JEANNE DU BARRY, her costume drama about the king’s scandalous commoner mistress in pre-Revolution France.

Expecting a lot of historical accuracy seems foolish for a film like this but entertainment and lush period details seem a a more realistic hope. So does it deliver?

Well, yes, it does. And Johnny Depp is pretty darn good too as King Louis XV, the French king in between the Sun King and the one who lost his head in the Revolution. Depp plays an older king, and the actor is about the right age for the role. Depp does speak French, having lived there on and off for several years, and his French sounds good, although director/star Maiwenn (she uses just one name) limits his dialog so as to reveal any American accent. However, the king isn’t the star of this movie – that role belongs to Maiwenn as the king’s mistress Jeanne Du Barry, also known as Madame Du Barry.

JEANNE DU BARRY is about the last mistress of the penultimate Bourbon king of France. King Louis XV (Depp) may really have loved Jeanne du Barry, and certainly he elevated her to a prominent place in the court, far beyond what any commoner could have dream of, much less one born out-of-wedlock and with a past as a courtesan. JEANNE DU BARRY leans into the love story and generally has splendid, enjoyable time with Jeanne’s unlikely story.

First off, the film does the visuals right. Lush costumes, wonderful locations (including Versailles) and wonderful period sets, all shot with lovely photography, as essentials for a costume drama and director Maiwenn gets all that just right. Maiwenn plays the grown-up Jeanne Vaubernier, later Madame du Barry, but the film starts with her as a young girl, the illegitimate daughter of a cook and mostly likely a monk. Her mother is the cook in the manor house home of a prosperous man, and her employer is fond of the pretty little blonde girl, and he pays for her education at a convent. In the film, Jeanne gets kicked out for reading racy novels but in fact, she just aged out of the school at 15, then considered the age when girls were considered marriageable age. With the girl developing into a beauty and now in their home, the lady of the manor, concerned about her husband’s interest in the teenager, fires her mother after falsely accusing her of theft, and mother and daughter make their way to Paris to live as best they can. Young Jeanne wants something more than life than being a cook like her mother and sets out to get it.

Of course, the film departs from facts more than a few times, mostly to make Jeanne appear more ahead of her time than she likely was, and perhaps more book-obsessed. Clearly she had to be smart, bold, and ambitious to get as far as she did, but she was also reportedly strikingly beautiful.

The real Jeanne reportedly was strikingly, an angelic looking blonde with ringlet curls and almond-shaped blue eyes. Little of that describes Maiwenn, who is also about twenty years older than the real Jeanne was when she met King Louis XV. But Maiwenn’s performance is bold and entertaining, and she commands attention when she is on screen. In the film, the young Jeanne became a courtesan in Paris, steadily trading up in her lovers. Through that work, she meets both Le Comte du Barry (Melvil Pompaud) who wants to mold her into a great courtesan moving in the highest social circles, and the elderly Duc de Richelieu, advisor to the King, who wants to introduce her to Louis XV. The king has been going though mistresses at a good pace, and Richelieu wants to find someone who can help steady the situation. Although the details of all of that are not entirely historically accurate, it’s close enough to serve this story and put us on our way.

When the two noblemen do arrange for Jeanne to meet the King, all beautifully dressed and properly made-up, of course, and escorted to court by du Barry. When he passes her in his procession through the line of nobles, the King seems taken with her. Depp plays this moment just right, keeping the king’s face still and dignified but allowing a longer pause and a direct. studying look at this new face. When the king sends for her, via his reliable courtier La Borde (Benjamin Lavernhe), all is discreet, but the king is quickly smitten with her, and wants Jeanne come live at court. That means she has to be the wife of a noble, as the king’s mistresses are required to be, and so a marriage to du Barry is quickly arranged (in reality, a marriage to his brother), so she can be at Versailles.

Having a connection like that to the King’s inner circle benefits du Barry, and a less-restless king has benefits for his minister Richelieu. In the film there is a scene where du Barry beats Jeanne but no there is no historical evidence of that, and despite that scene, Jeanne seems to remain on friendly terms with du Barry and close to his young son, who she regards almost as her own in the film.

Maiwenn plays Jeanne as a bold rule-breaker, who looks the king in the eye and flaunts the rules. But she is smart enough to know what the rules are, when to break them and when to follow convention, usually with a flourish. The movie has Jeanne dressing in men’s clothing and being a rather feminist figure. There is no historical evidence for that, although it does make for a fun movie. Other things that seem highly unlikely, like the King gifting Jeanne an African child, really did happen.

Johnny Depp (left) as King Louis XV and Maiwenn (center) as Jeanne du Barry, in JEANNE DU BARRY. Courtesy of Vertical

The French court had seen its share of mistresses, to the current Louis XV and his great-grandfather Louis XIV, and the court even had formal title for the recognized favorite. The king’s mean-spirited daughters (wonderfully played by India Hair, Suzanne de Baecque, and Capucine Valmary) disapproved of but tolerated others, but they were appalled by this particular mistress. Jeanne’s combination of low-birth and past history as courtesan was a step too far, even compared to past paramours like Madame Pompadour.

If Jeanne’s greatest adversaries at court are the king’s daughters, she does have a helpful ally in LaBorde, and to a lesser extent Richelieu. Early on, Jeanne is a bit more of a rebel than she is later in the film, but LaBorde helps guide her. Later, she becomes more sweet and caring, to the king and others in the inner circle. The film ends with a well-done deathbed scene, with Depp’s Louis dying of small pox with dignity and grace, and a post script sequence of what became of Jeanne afterwards.

There is plenty of glittering, gilt gorgeousness and Versailles pomp in JEANNE DU BARRY, enough to satisfy any fan of the genre. The film is well-made and well-acted, and does provide entertainment as a polished, pretty costume drama if an imperfect history lesson. The acting is overall very good, and Maiwenn comes on strong as Jeanne, filling the screen with high energy, although some of what the character does seems a bit far-fetched.

Strong supporting performances come from Pierre Richard as the elderly Richelieu and Melvil Pompaud as the often-smirking, always-calculating Comte Du Barry. As LaBorde, Benjamin Lavernhe is a standout. He does a fabulous job in this role, presenting the courtier as stiff and overly-formal at first, but gradually softening, developing layers of caring and even humor beneath his precise facade. He becomes a true friend to Jeanne as well, and at the end, even someone who offers a kind of comfort and a bit of human kindness towards the dying king, although still within the rules of his position.

JEANNE DU BARRY maybe overstates Jeanne’s case a bit as an intellectual bookworm or basically good-hearted soul but it does make for an enjoyable film. Certainly, the film focuses only on what is happening at court, and fully ignores the brewing storm of Revolution out in the streets where Jeanne came from. Nor does the film acknowledge that when Louis XV died, he was nearly as hated has his Sun King predecessor Louis XIV, although he had been popular at the start of his long rule. Two back-to-back hated kings helped set in motion the Revolution, and at the film’s end, we learn Jeanne’s fate in that too, having erased her commoner roots. Certainly, JEANNE DU BARRY has all the gorgeous bells-and-whistles of a fine, polished historical drama, and the fine acting increases the enjoyment and entertainment. But it also might leave one wanting to add a little “vive la Revolution” as all that is swept away.

JEANNE DU BARRY, in French with English subtitles, opens Friday, May 3, in selected theaters.

RATING: 2.5 out of 4 stars