Here we go again. The 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival opened tonight with the usual pomp and circumstance. Now that all pandemic-related restrictions have been lifted, here on the ground the whole thing very much feels like a spectacle again. The Mediterranean air buzzes with excitement.
Of course, you can’t open a film festival without an opening film. And for weeks I’ve dreaded watching this one. JEANNE DU BARRY, a costume drama about the real-life courtesan of Louis XV, is directed by and stars Maïwenn, a filmmaker whose latest works I have not been a fan of and who became a problematic figure for her prominent anti-Me-Too stance and for her recent assault of a journalist in relation thereto. Her co-star Johnny Depp is obviously not the most uncontroversial character himself. The fact that, with so much pressure put on Cannes to program more female-directed films in competition, JEANNE DU BARRY landed an out-of-competition slot, doesn’t give you confidence either.
Going in with such lowered expectations, I’m quite surprised to say it’s not a bad time at all. The film doesn’t break any ground or reinvent the genre, so the OOC placement seems fair. But, if you are like me and unfamiliar with the history surrounding its titular character, you might well find yourself engaged and entertained by this confidently told, gorgeously styled biopic.
As the film quickly establishes, Jeanne came from nothing. As the illegitimate child of a monk, she had to fend for herself from an early age. When she saw what the power of seduction could bring, she starts to use it to climb the social ladder of 18th century France. With the help of her husband, she meets and soon wins the favor of the King. But life at Versailles is not all roses and champagnes. Many members of the royal family see her as a blemish to their name. The King finds his fun with other mistresses. And there’s this young lady from Austria called Marie-Antoinette whose approval might decide whether or not she gets to stay where she is.
Yes, it’s all a bit frothy, unsophisticated. But I appreciate how the film embraces this gossipy side of royal history and illustrates the high stakes of any wrong move. For someone like Jeanne, a commoner whose fate hangs on the whims of a mercurial King, court life is a constant battle of wits. And the films does a fine job depicting how she navigates her way through a pool of very fancy sharks. She forms friendships, alliances, tries everything to maintain her pull with the King. When you break it down to the most basic human level, the tricks she plays are no less vital than what people in other circumstances would do in order to survive.
Aside from the juicy plot, MVP of JEANNE DU BARRY is its design department. Probably a lot of the film was shot on location in Versailles, but Angelo Zamparutti’s sumptuous production design fills in whatever blanks and creates a seamless illusion of royal grandeur. The costumes by Jürgen Doering are next-level. Gloriously big, bold and imaginative, his creations are not only a feast for the eyes, they often provide important subtext to a scene, like the androgynous suit Jeanne wears to demonstrate her wild side or the larger-than-life canary gown she puts on to let everyone know her place in the reshuffled food chain. With all these eye-popping sets and clothes tastefully shot by Laurent Dailland, this movie looks good enough to eat.
Maïwenn’s direction is skilled, efficient if unsurprising, delivering a classical, by-the-numbers period drama that doesn’t burst with personality the way say, BARRY LYNDON or MARIE ANTOINETTE did. But it’s a brisk, enjoyable 113-min ride that barely has any fat on it. I also think she hits the necessary emotional note in a few key scenes, proving the success of her work building the characters. As the lead actress she’s solid as well. With remarkable conviction she portrays a young woman bent on finding a better life for herself in a hopelessly misogynistic society. Depp, who plays the King and, contrary to some advance reports, has significant screen time (bordering on co-lead), doesn’t have as much of a character arc to work on. But as someone who’s used to being the center of attention and public displays of respect/adoration, his portrayal of Louis XV feels easy, unforced throughout.
So that’s it, first film down in Cannes. Over the next eleven days, 21 films will compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or. I will try to catch them all and hopefully find some gems in the sidebar sections too. Stay tuned.