The films of Maïwenn have always been a topic of debate, often dividing audiences. When they hit the mark, such as her breakthrough film “Polisse,” they showcase intense ensemble performances reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ work.
However, when they miss the mark, like her recent film “DNA,” they come across as self-indulgent arthouse projects centered solely around Maïwenn herself. Surprisingly, her latest endeavor, a $22.4 million biopic of the legendary 18th-century French courtesan Jeanne du Barry, lacks the captivating energy one would expect from the director. While visually sumptuous and featuring stunning costumes, the film ultimately falls flat, leaving audiences wanting more.
A Lackluster Execution:
“Jeanne du Barry” boasts a magnificent setting, with scenes shot in and around the real Palace of Versailles. The rags-to-riches-to-Roi Louis XV narrative of du Barry’s life provides an engaging foundation. However, once these elements are established, Maïwenn fails to capitalize on their potential.
The casting of Johnny Depp as the king initially generates intrigue, but his role quickly fizzles out, with minimal dialogue. Maïwenn’s performance as the lead is commendable, yet the chemistry between her and Depp feels uninspiring. Consequently, the film becomes a handsome but shallow period piece, far from scandalous despite the controversial reputations of its lead actors.
A Recurring Tale:
The story of Jeanne du Barry has been attempted on screen before, most notably in Ernst Lubitsch’s silent film “Passion” and William Dieterle’s “Madame du Barry.” Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” also featured du Barry as a character, inspiring Maïwenn to embark on her own project about the courtesan.
Working with writers Teddy Lussi-Modeste and Nicolas Livecchi, Maïwenn constructs a classic Cinderella story, enveloped in opulent costumes and high production values. However, the focus remains primarily on du Barry’s pursuit of wealth, neglecting the social and political context of Versailles. The film misses an opportunity to delve deeper into the character’s motivations and the intriguing dynamics of the time.
The film’s most captivating moments occur in its early sequences, where we witness Jeanne Bécu’s ascent from a commoner to an influential figure in aristocratic circles. Maïwenn skillfully directs these scenes with a detached and cool authority, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.”
We witness a young woman faced with limited choices in a world dominated by privileged men, creating a visceral experience for the viewer. However, once Jeanne reaches Versailles, the narrative loses its momentum, primarily focusing on tame rituals and surface-level characterizations.
A Missed Opportunity:
The film follows Jeanne’s romantic relationship with Louis XV, which lasts for six years. Unfortunately, the lack of meaningful interactions between the two diminishes the intrigue surrounding their love affair. The film fails to explore the complexities of their connection and instead fixates on the administrative aspects of the palace, managed by the king’s valet, La Borde.
The surface-level approach to the characters leaves viewers craving a deeper exploration of their personalities and motivations. Even the rivalry between Jeanne du Barry and Marie-Antoinette, depicted as a Disney-esque conflict, fails to add substantial depth to the narrative.
Impressive Aesthetics, Lacking Substance:
“Jeanne du Barry” shines in terms of craftsmanship, with its stunning costumes, exquisite cinematography, and opulent set designs effectively capturing the extreme