Producers: Pascal Caucheteux and Grégoire Sorlat   Director: Maïwenn   Screenplay: Maïwenn, Teddy Lussi-Modeste and Nicolas Livecchi   Cast: Maïwenn, Johnny Depp, Benjamin Lavernhe, Pierre Richard, Melvil Poupaud, Pascal Greggory, Marianne Basler, India Hair, Suzanne de Baecque, Capucine Valmary, Laura Le Velly, Diego Le Fur, Pauline Pollman, Micha Lescot, Noémie Lvovsky, Thibault Bonenfant, Robin Renucci, Ibrahim Yaffa,  Djibril Djimo, Patrick d’Assumçao, Teddy Lussi-Modeste, Éric Denize, Raphaël Quenard, Grégoire Oestermann, Erika Sainte, Emma Kaboré Dufour, Loli Bahia, Caroline Chaniolleau, Coralie Russier, Luna Carpiaux and Marie Bokillon   Distributor: Vertical

Grade: C

Proving once again that Stanley Kubrick was the most influential director of modern times, Maïwenn’s film about the courtesan who became the mistress of King Louis XV of France is not merely a gender-reversal copy of “Barry Lyndon”—it seems predestined that they should share the name—but an attempt at a stylistic homage as well.  Unhappily, “Jeanne du Barry” also proves that Maïwenn is no Kubrick.

The story is, as with the one “Lyndon” took from Thackeray, a tale of social-climbing.  Jeanne (played as a child by Emma Kaboré Dufour) is the illegitimate daughter of servant-woman Anne Bécu (played as a younger woman by Erika Sainte, and later by Marianne Basler), but as a teen (Loli Bahia) she’s treated kindly and educated well by M. Dumousseaux (Robin Renucci), who has taken on her mother as a cook.  After a stint as a companion to elderly widow Madame de la Garde (Caroline Chaniolleau), Jeanne, now played by Maïwenn, loses the position after the lady’s sons show too much interest in her.

Though she’d previously demurred when asked to pose nude for a painter, Jeanne joins the roster at a popular Paris bordello, where her exceptional vivacity attracts the attention of Count Guillaume du Barry (Melvil Poupaud); she becomes his mistress and a doting tutor to his handsome son Adolphe (Thibault Bonenfant).  She also entrances the Duke of Richelieu (Pierre Richard), who, along with his nephew (Pascal Greggory), advises the count that he introduce her to the king (Johnny Depp), a well-known philanderer, in order to advance their joint political ambitions.

The scheme succeeds beyond their wildest hopes.  Louis is so taken by Jeanne that he quickly desires her to move into the palace as his mistress, which, since she is a commoner, requires her secret marriage to Du Barry but nonetheless induces the scorn of three of the king’s daughters, Adélaïde (India Hair), Victoire (Suzanne de Baecque) and Sophie (Laura Le Velly), though Louise (Capucine Valmary), the fourth, being pious (and a hunchback), is more receptive.  Nonetheless the scandal of Jeanne’s presence at court is worsened when Adélaïde persuades Marie Antoinette (Pauline Pollmann), the Austrian princess newly arrived as the betrothed of Louis’ grandson the Dauphin (Diego Le Fur), the future Louis XVI, to spurn her—a problem that the Austrian ambassador (Micha Lescot) tries vainly to resolve until the king himself intervenes.

Much of the film is devoted to the relationship of Louis and Jeanne—marked by his gift to her of a black slave boy named Zamor (Ibrahim Yaffa, and later played as a teen by Djibril Djimo), who becomes her special favorite.  But their closeness necessarily demands her immersion in the details of palace etiquette, like the requirement never to turn one’s back on the king, which requires everyone but the Dauphin to walk away from him backwards with tiny little steps (a practice used too frequently for laughs).  The emphasis on court ritual explains the dominant presence of Benjamin Lavernhe as Jean-Benjamin de La Borde, the premier valet of the king’s chamber, who acts as Jeanne’s instructor and watches with amusement as her antics regularly raise eyebrows and expressions of shock among the Versailles aristocrats.

As the affair proceeds over years, however, Louis’ eye begins to rove again, and Jeanne must put up with a cooling of his affection.  The ardor returns, however, when the king falls ill with smallpox and Jeanne waits on him tenderly.  But warned that his place in the afterlife is endangered unless he confess his sin and end the scandal, he reluctantly forces the distraught Jeanne to leave his side, and after his death she is forced into exile in a convent.  The narrator (Stanislas Stanic) who has explained much from the film’s beginning returns to encapsulate her later years, which ended with her execution during the coming Revolution that toppled Louis XVI, who, the film suggests, had always treated her in a gracious fashion.

The use of that omniscient narrator is one way in which Maïwenn mimics Kubrick’s approach; so does the habit of composing shots like paintings and lingering on them at length, and a scene near the start, in which candles are used to give the image a ghostly glow—a technique that was a revolutionary one in Kubrick’s film.  Cinematographer Laurent Dailland manages the effect with skill, capturing the opulence of Angelo Zamparutti’s production design and Jürgen Doering’s costumes in exquisite wide-screen images; and Laure Gardette’s editing attempts the same intense stateliness that marked “Lyndon.”   Yet the result lacks the gravity that underlay and informed the earlier film, which evoked a haunting subtext enhanced by Kubrick’s choice of classical musical cues, which Stephen Warbeck’s score, while good in itself, cannot match.  As a result while Kubrick’s film possessed a solemn inevitability, Maïwenn’s just seems slow, even lethargic.

And that despite her performance, which is certainly energetic, arguably too much so.  That’s integral to a desire to depict Jeanne as proto-modern in terms of her rambunctious, independent attitude, which is contrasted with the Old Regime’s treatment of women (even royal ones) as virtual property (a scene in which Du Barry angrily pushes Jeanne’s head underwater as she reads in a bathtub is the most extreme example, but the gynecological exam she must endure before her initial meeting with Louis is almost as cruel).  And, of course, even she in the end must submit to the realities of the age, however naturally free-spirited she is.  It would be a difficult task for any actress to pull off the characterization the script contrives, and frankly Maïwenn isn’t up to the challenge.  Not only is it difficult to accept the premise that men find Jeanne irresistible—the actress is hardly unattractive, but her beauty is, to be charitable about it, unusual—but presenting her as a sort of irrepressible tomboy with a saccharine streak never really convinces.

Otherwise the performances run the gamut, depending on the script’s abrupt changes of sensibility.  Some characters are comic caricatures—Adélaïde, Victoire and Sophie are like Cinderella’s evil stepsisters, and Marie Antoinette is an airhead—and are played that way.  Others, like the sympathetic La Borde, represent a subtler comic tone, and Lavernhe, with his slight smile and arched eyebrows, catches it nicely.  Still others, like Poupaud’s manipulative Du Barry, are truly unpleasant.  But most are like the furniture—recognizable types rather than layered human beings. 

And then there’s Depp, who plays the greying monarch as a man of few words (which the actor delivers in French well enough) desperate for a bit of release from a stifling routine, which Maïwenn captures in a delicious scene showing how he begins each day with a troupe of retainers and family entering his chamber to wake, greet and dress him.  Since the king’s relationship with Jeanne turns out to be pretty emotion-free until the long death watch at the end, moments like this help explain why he might have been taken with the lack of restraint she represented.  But the performance itself is hardly one of his more memorably charismatic turns.

“Jeanne du Barry” is handsomely mounted and, though languid, watchable, but in the end it’s neither a penetrating character study of Louis XV’s mistress nor a biting satire of the decrepit Ancien Regime the king represented.  Instead it’s a glossy version of what used to be called a women’s picture in eighteenth-century dress.