Jeanne du Barry: is this Johnny Depp’s glorious comeback? Er, non

Johnny Depp and Maïwenn in Jeanne du Barry
Johnny Depp and Maïwenn in Jeanne du Barry

Ever since Johnny Depp’s ill-advised 2020 libel case at the High Court caused his already ailing career to crunch to a halt, the actor’s supporters have been wondering when he will once again be cast in the sort of role he so richly deserves.

His detractors may well think Jeanne du Barry is it. In this stale and draughty period piece, Depp stars as the French king Louis XV, whose affair with the courtesan Jeanne Vaubernier, also known as the Comtesse du Barry, scandalises Versailles. Depp may be the actor least suited – after Hulk Hogan – to playing an ancien régime monarch: true, his French is not too shabby, but his regal gravitas is nonexistent, and he only truly looks at home in the role during occasional bouts of clowning, which hardly help sell his casting as an inspired choice.

While praying with his chaplain one morning, the king pulls faces at his mistress Jeanne (the French singer and filmmaker Maïwenn), who is giggling delightedly behind a two-way mirror in an adjacent bedroom. But the solemn and dignified stuff comes less easily: while you sense “ageing rock star” might have been the hair and make-up brief, at moments of high ceremony, the powdered face, tight curls and pursed, rouged lips all scream Mrs Slocombe.

The story begins not with Louis but Jeanne herself, who as a youngster is sent off to a nunnery for being too darn sexy for her servant job – then is later thrown out for being too darn sexy even for the nunnery. A Parisian brothel proves more her speed, and after gaining a reputation as a skilled and highly cultured lover, she comes to the attention of the Comte du Barry (Melvil Poupaud) – who along with the Duc du Richelieu (Pierre Richard) contrives to bring her to Versailles, in the hope that the king will spot her and take her as a mistress.

The plan works, and after a gynaecological exam that’s played for laughs – actually one of the better scenes – Louis and Jeanne become a serious item, much to the chagrin of the king’s slightly ludicrous ugly-sister trio of daughters and the court at large. Essentially, every second scene involves Jeanne billowing into a large room as expensively costumed extras gasp and swoon over some outrageous flaunting of etiquette (maybe she’s wearing men’s clothes, maybe she’s accompanied by a black page boy the king buys her as a present).

Eventually tragedy strikes when Louis contracts smallpox, allowing Depp a number of increasingly tedious scenes in which he lies in bed croaking with his face covered in Rice Krispies. And when things get especially dire, out come the Coco Pops.

It’s mostly handsomely shot, with painterly vistas of the French countryside and lots of dazzling Versailles interiors. But the central relationship never convinces – it all just feels like a performance, put on for the benefit of the courtiers and by extension, us. Depp is hardly the first Hollywood outcast to find work in Europe, but it would be a stretch to say this feels like the first spark of a glorious comeback.

Cert tbc, 116 min. In cinemas from April 19