du Barry Celebrates the Subtle Art of Great Acting

May 5, 2024

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3 stars

Wow. The King looks like crap.

Given the opulent nature of everything else on the screen, it’s probably not the comment that co-writer/director/leading actress Maïwenn was looking for the first time his costar shows up. Still, it will be many people’s gut reaction: The King, Louis XV of France, looks puffy and bloated—downright unhealthy. Or at least the actor portraying him, Johnny Depp, looks that way. Thankfully, he seems to improve as the story goes on.

Jeanne du Barry is the story of Jeanne Vaubernier (Maïwenn), a French peasant who uses her wit, charm, and feminine ways to climb the social ladder from the gutters of Paris to the King’s bedroom in the palace at Versailles. Along the way, she makes a few friends and many enemies while doing her best to challenge the arrogant social structure of the French upper class. It’s an inspiring story but in a very subtle way. Jeanne isn’t there to spark the French Revolution, although we learn at the end that she did participate in the movement. Her rebellion stems from how she refuses to compromise who she is despite the pressure of the arrogant aristocrats surrounding her.

The acting in Jeanne du Barry is spot on, although only three characters get enough screen time to be more than one-dimensional. Although he may not look great, the 61-year-old Depp remains a master scene stealer, doing more with a single word or kingly gesture than some actors could do with pages of dialogue. Watch the scene where a toady from the newly arrived Marie Antoinette (Paulene Pollmann) asks the king if he will attend a stage performance featuring the young lady. With a look and a one-word reply, Depp’s King pushes France and Austria to the brink of war. It’s a near-perfect movie moment.

Maïwenn deserves high praise for her performance as Jeanne Vaubernier, and the fact that she also directed the movie only increases one’s admiration. There are so many scenes in Jeanne du Barry where the audience desperately wants Jeanne to get angry and yell at, if not physically hurt, the King’s catty daughters as they taunt and tease her for being who she is and not giving a damn what they think about it. She never does, though. Maïwenn keeps her in control, and it makes Jeanne more heroic. 

The third brilliant performance in Jeanne du Barry comes from Benjamin Lavernhe, who plays the part of the King’s loyal footman, La Borde. As the emissary of the country’s ultimate royalty, La Borde tutors Jeanne in the ways of the court and the things she can and can’t do while in the King’s presence. At first, La Borde is icy, treating Jeanne as just another visitor to the King’s bed. He gradually warms up to her, and it’s fascinating to watch the bond between them build through looks and gestures instead, which never really breach the etiquette that La Bonde lives by. La Bonde’s relationship with the King is equally engaging. He may be cool on the outside, but Lavernhe lets his character’s heart shine through with a look or a gesture worthy of his king,


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