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Jeanne du Barry

In 1761, a 24-year-old penniless woman named Jeanne Bécu wrote a letter to a "dear friend," telling him she loved him before getting to the point: "I don’t want to remain a shopgirl, but a little more my own mistress, and would therefore like to find someone to keep me." She makes her pitch: "It will not cost you anymore rent ... To keep me and my headdress will be the only expense, and for those give me one hundred livres a month." 

The unknown man did not take her up on it, but the letter shows the boldness of the woman soon known to history as Madame du Barry. She was the illegitimate daughter of a cook and a monk. Not a good start. She needed protection. Eventually, Jean-Baptiste du Barry stepped into the keeper role. Not long afterward, she was introduced to King Louis XV and installed at Versailles as his mistress. The rest is history.

But what history? Does the story of Madame du Barry illuminate any truths or provide insight into historical events? I would argue that it does. Unfortunately, "Jeanne du Barry," directed by French director/actress Maïwenn, who she plays the title role opposite Johnny Depp as King Louis V, takes a surface-level approach to this famously controversial figure. 

"Jeanne du Barry" is undeniably pleasing to look at; cinematographer Laurent Dailland makes full use of those extraordinary rooms and vistas, with "Barry Lyndon"-style candle flames illuminating dark rooms, and Jürgen Doering deserves high praise for his costume design. But the story's intriguing complexities are smoothed over, submerged, and deemed less interesting than the lovers' stunning surroundings. 

The film starts with voiceover, an omniscient voice lecturing us on Jeanne's early history in flash-card fashion. We see her as a child, and 10 seconds later, she's a teenager, refusing to take her clothes off as an artist's model. Another ten seconds, she's tossed out of her job as a lady's companion after sleeping with the woman's two sons. Ten seconds after that, she's the most celebrated courtesan in Paris. How on earth did this transformation happen? There's no real exploration of the practicality of this woman (as evidenced in the letter above) doing what she had to do to survive.

Once ensconced in the home of the Comte du Barry (Melvil Poupaud), she is approached by La Borde (Benjamin Lavernhe), King Louis' adviser (and, let's face it, procurer). He arranges a meeting with the King. La Borde tutors Jeanne in royal protocols (one can't help but think of Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman" learning about table settings). A doctor examines Jeanne with a speculum straight out of a torture chamber from the Spanish Inquisition. Everything is in order with her vagina, apparently. And so begins Jeanne's "affair" with the King.

Because it's Versailles, "affair" has a different meaning. Royal mistresses were a tradition, but Jeanne du Barry was no Madame de Pompadour (the mistress before Jeanne). Pompadour wielded immense power as a patron of the arts and political adviser. The court despised Jeanne, and the King's daughters rejected her. As presented in "Jeanne du Barry," the liaison between Jeanne and the King is an oasis of peace, the two instantly understanding and valuing one another. The nature of their bond is not explored with specificity. Is Jeanne flattered by his attention or just dazzled by the jewels? (The jewels include the famous necklace, which caused such a scandal that it reared its head 10 years later and became a huge factor in toppling Marie Antoinette.) The power imbalance in the relationship with Louis was not weird at the time, but there is a distinct lack of curiosity in digging into it. The bond is not explained. We are meant just to take it on faith.

Depp was a controversial casting choice (probably one of the reasons why the equally controversial Maïwenn chose him), and he sleepwalks through the part in his fabulous outfits and plumed hats, seeming mostly dispirited. Maïwenn's Jeanne is a cipher in a generalized emotional state of playfulness, humor, and tenderness. It appears she has no faults or flaws. There's no edge to the portrayal, nothing distinct. The most touching performance in the film is Lavernhe's Borde, who adds shadings of humor and kindness to what could have been a perfunctory role.

The film's presentation of Zamor, the slave child King Louis gave to Jeanne as a gift—literally in a box with a huge bow—is unsettling and uncritical. Zamor is played as a child and teenager by Ibrahim Yaffa and Djibril Djimo, respectively, and the relationship between him and Jeanne is shown as idyllic and childlike, the two of them cavorting around the palace, the open-minded Jeanne rising above the racist court. This is simplistic, not to mention dishonest, particularly if you know the real story. When revolution broke out a decade later, Zamor joined the Jacobins, calling for the arrest of Jeanne, detailing her love of aristocracy, her outrageous spending habits, and her "ownership" of him. Zamor brought about Jeanne du Barry’s downfall. She was beheaded in 1793.

At film's end, the voiceover informs us Zamor did what he did "out of distress or spite." "Spite"? This sounds suspiciously like “he bit the hand that fed him." It is the "tell," the giveaway of how the film wants us to view Jeanne. It seems that "out of justifiable anger" would be a better way to describe Zamor's actions. "Jeanne du Barry" cares more about the love affair between two non-distinct people wearing exquisite clothes in stunning rooms than the reality that would sweep away those rooms, those clothes, and those people in just a few years' time.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

Jeanne du Barry movie poster

Jeanne du Barry (2024)

117 minutes

Cast

Maïwenn as Jeanne Du Barry

Johnny Depp as Louis XV

Benjamin Lavernhe as La Borde

Melvil Poupaud as Le Comte Du Barry

Robin Renucci as Monsieur Dumousseaux

Pierre Richard as Le Duc de Richelieu

Marianne Basler as Anne, la mère de Jeanne adolescente

Caroline Chaniolleau as Madame de la Garde

Pascal Greggory as Le Duc D'Aiguillon

Director

Writer

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