Johnny Depp and Maïwenn Lead Period Romance

May 17, 2023

Biopics can shed new light on the life and work of beloved celebrities, but they can also introduce the audience to a fairly unknown historical figure. That’s the case with Maïwenn’s Jeanne du Barry, a period romance inspired by the real-life story of the famous French woman who used her charm to become the favorite mistress of King Louis XV during the 18th century. And while Maïwenn’s main concern seems to be exploring the relatively simplistic and idealized romance between the courtesan and the king, Jeanne du Barry still offers a welcome sex-positive message when discussing the role of women in a world dominated by men.

Starring Maïwenn herself as the titular character, Jeanne du Barry chronicles Jeanne’s upbringing and the many coincidences that led her to become well-educated in a time when common folk rarely learnt how to ready. Jeanne’s passion for books lead her to discover erotic stories, which teaches her how she can use her body to get what she wants from men. From that point on, Jeanne seduces her way into the court of Louis XV, played by Johnny Depp.

RELATED: Johnny Depp and Maïwenn Have Eyes for Each Other in New ‘Jeanne du Barry’ Posters

Choosing a non-French actor to play a French king in a high-budget production might feel weird, but Depp does surprisingly well. Those who use French as an everyday language can still hear Depp’s accent, but his mastery of the language is extensive enough to fit the role, which is a welcome surprise. It also helps that the constricted structure of the French monarchy forces the King to become a man of few words, imposing his will by his presence alone. Depp is not given many moments to show his royal might, but in the few scenes he does, he gives the character the best he can.

Unfortunately, the romance side of Jeanne du Barry is not as thrilling as Depp and Maïwenn don’t have the chemistry needed to sweep us off our feet. Granted, they are playing a couple whose love must be constantly tamed to fit the social rules of the French court, which means every act of kindness or passion is also a performance put together to appease or shock the many prying eyes of the Versailles castle. Still, for Jeanne du Barry to truly stand apart as a period romance, it ought to be less cold regarding the two leads’ supposedly passionate romance.

On that note, Maïwenn also doesn’t seem comfortable playing a woman who uses her body as a weapon, and during Jeanne du Barry’s first act it is hard to explain why so many men are drained of their reason when the courtesan is around. However, once the story begins to focus exclusively on Jeanne’s romance with the king, Maïwenn transmutes into an adorable figure that holds the whole movie together with her charm.

Image via Why Not Productions

Jeanne du Barry is stronger when it makes fun of the bizarre costumes of the French court, put together to maintain the status quo and ensure the wealthy classes remain in power. Because of that, the presence of an ordinary woman in the court is a scandal in itself. Even so, Jeanne uses all her energy to disturb the rigid life in the palace, slowly convincing the King to challenge the court’s notion of grace and duty. Jeanne du Barry is not nearly as disruptive as it wants to be, and its anti-monarchy message is often shadowed by the movie’s will to illuminate the glory and riches of the kingdom. Still, it’s a joy to see Maïwenn’s Jeanne carve her way in Versailles by daring to be herself and, in doing so, bring a forgotten joy to the King’s life.

Jeanne du Barry also deserves praise for portraying sex workers positively. More often than not, period romances focus on the relationships between court members, where only deep love can lead to sexual adventures. Jeanne du Barry, on the contrary, spends a good chunk of its runtime showing how sex workers are still masters of their bodies and can be a lot more than sexual objects for men’s pleasure. For instance, Jeanne herself finds satisfaction in being a courtesan, rejoicing in the fact that she can convince men to do what she wants in exchange for some hours of her company. It is refreshing to see a movie, especially a period biopic, tackle the subject without over-objectifying sex workers or reducing them to the position of helpless victims incapable of controlling their fate. Just like it happens with its supposed rebellious message, Jeanne du Barry is not as disruptive as it could be when it comes to sex-positivity and women’s rights. Yet, the effort to add this kind of nuance to a period romance is admirable.

Jeanne du Barry’s straightforward script might not convince the average moviegoer to spend two hours in the French court. However, fans of period romances will be well-served with a love story that puts a sex worker in the spotlight. And while Maïwenn and Depp are not the steamiest couple in period biopics, Jeanne du Barry is still entertaining enough to be worth your time.

Rating: B-

Jeanne du Barry had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

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