Film & TV

Film Review: Jeanne du Barry

In 18th Century, pre-Revolution France. Jeanne Bécu the illegitimate daughter of a monk, hungers for culture and pleasure.

Indulgent and absorbing

In the opening scene, the narrator asks the audience a question: “But aren’t girls who come from nothing ready for anything?”

And so begins Jeanne du Barry, a film based on the life of Jeanne Bécu, a nobody by birth, who would eventually rise to fame as the Countess du Barry (Maïwenn), Louis XV’s (Johnny Depp) official mistress, and his last. Historically, she arrived as the Queen lay dying and replaced his previous Maîtresse-en-titre, Madame du Pompadour.

It was love at first sight between Louis XV and Jeanne. Prior to their meeting, the early life of Jeanne is narrated as the scenes unfold, with occasional snippets of live dialogue between the characters depicted on screen. Emma Kaboré Dufour and Loli Bahia portray Jeanne as a child and a teenager (respectively) with surprising resemblance not only to each other, but also to Maïwenn as the adult.

The narration in the beginning continues intermittently throughout the film and creates a fairy tale atmosphere. Co-writer, director and lead actor Maïwenn spent three years working on the screenplay, and her intention was to place Jeanne in a positive light. As such she blends this biopic into a fairy tale genre, fitting to the real-life story itself, albeit the impropriety of Jeanne’s chosen profession.

It should be noted though that in France, by the time Louis XV came to the throne it had long been established that the King could have a mistress and for those with more than one, the favourite would become his official. The favourite also becomes the one that wields power. Despite the continued disapproval from his family and the majority of those at court he makes Jeanne his new favourite, who at times ignores the demands of court whilst at the same time pioneers a new way forward. All but one of his daughters are portrayed as mean and spoiled women with status and lineage behind them and continue to scorn Jeanne for her birth and life as a harlot.

Consequently, both her and he put up with a lot of for loving each other. It was a tumultuous and challenging time for them both but also beautiful as they are almost always portrayed in a loving light. The film demonstrates the lengths one goes to for love. Above all this is story of love and romance in a historical context.

Maiwenn says she felt a strong connection to her character and in some ways her life reflects her own. The plot serves to give Jeanne full character development. She is kind, generous, a patron of the arts, and compassionate. She was hated for being progressive yet imitated by those who scorned. Benjamin Lavernhe as La borde, the king’s first valet acts brilliantly in his support role, a product of the court yet accepting of Jeanne.

Most of the scenes involve minimal dialogue; is it the body language, facial expressions and decadence (or not) that tell much of the story. Johnny Depp as Louis XV acts with gazes and silence rather than words – if you think back to Edward Scissorhands – this best explains the strength of his performance.

I valued the film for its finery in the costume design – striking dresses, incredibly coiffed hair and make-up that really considered the beauty standards of the time. One such standard was the desire for pure white skin, such as when introducing the future Queen of France Marie Antoinette (Pauline Pollmann) they look upon her beauty, noting her ‘milky white skin’. By contrast Zamor, a product of the slave trade, when presented as a gift to Jeanne by the King, was ‘exotic’ but considered lowly because of his dark skin.

There were no attempts by Maïwenn to be politically correct as this would not have reflected the truth of the era. The adherence to the customs of the time is also embedded in the plot as Jeanne is forced to marry Comte du Barry (Melvil Poupaud) who has the aristocracy required to introduce her at court. The pomposity of ceremony and absurdity of etiquette required by those at court is highlighted by the clearly bored Louis XV and also in the rigmarole that Jeanne undertook simply to be introduced. This is a brilliant biopic that holds nothing back and although not completely without its liberties, skilfully takes the audience on a journey back in time.

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