How Johnny Depp shook off trial 'baggage' to star in Jeanne du Barry opposite Maiwenn

Story of King Louis XV's trailblazing mistress is a hit at Red Sea International Film Festival

Maiwenn, who also directed and produced the film, as Jeanne Du Barry, alongside Johnny Depp. Photo: Le Pacte
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Maiwenn had been wanting to do a film on Jeanne du Barry for 16 years before the historical drama was released in May. The film, which was a highlight of the Red Sea International Film Festival, tells the story of King Louis XV’s chief royal mistress in a tale that touches upon the social constructs and power plays of the French court in the 18th century.

For Maiwenn, a French filmmaker of Algerian descent, Madame du Barry was an embodiment of someone who aimed to live her life to the fullest. The countess pushed the envelope of the customs and expectations that women were subject to in the royal court. It gave her an air of infamy, but also made her a trailblazer for her time.

“I made a movie about her because I fell in love with her and her life story, and also the historical era,” Maiwenn says. “Maybe it's because she was a free woman. Maybe because she was an outcast. Maybe because she was self taught.”

“She was the first woman to wear men's clothing [at the court],” Maiwenn says. “She attended a hunting party dressed as a man. I wanted to show that scene because it was very important symbolically.”

Besides writing and directing the film, Maiwenn stars as the film’s titular protagonist opposite Johnny Depp’s King Louis XV. Balancing between the two roles on set was a challenge, she says.

“It's difficult to direct even when one doesn't play in the movie,” Maiwenn says. “I made movies in which I played and others in which I didn't play. It's always a challenge. At the end of a movie, I always feel empty because I've given my all to the project. I am both an actor and a spectator and there is something schizophrenic about it. But I don't think that it is in contradiction with the craft of the director."

"I think that's been a director has taught me a lot and as an actress, she says. "Look at painters when they do self-portraits, it’s always a work that has to do with analysis and psychology. It is not only a portrait of themselves. These are not people who are highly narcissistic or in love with themselves. These are people who feel like they have a calling.”

Yet, writing the script and spending years researching Jeanne du Barry meant that Maiwenn did not have to prepare for the role, as by the time the cameras were rolling, she already knew the character.

“I spent years reading about her,” Maiwenn says. “It’s all in memory, the dates, the famous sentences, the major events.”

Depp also underlined the difficulties that come with simultaneously directing and acting in a film. Having fulfilled both roles in his 1997 film The Brave, the actor called the experience “a nightmare".

“I was directing the thing, and I also had to act in it.,” he says. “There are such opposing entities. To be an actor, you need to be available to whatever's happening around you, but not necessarily awareness. As a director, you have to be aware of everything around. It was the most difficult thing in the world to do. But [Maiwenn] pulled it off beautifully.”

When Depp was first offered the role, he says he thought it was "a strange idea".

“Initially, my reaction was maybe a French actor should play Louis. But I stuck with it and just tried to find the things that I can add to this to give a little seasoning, try to do something that maybe hasn't been kind of bashed around too much,” he says.

Depp noted that for every part, he tries to find ways to captivate audiences within the first few minutes of appearing on screen. He also alluded to the media attention last year’s defamation trial against ex-wife Amber Heard, saying he came in with “much baggage, train cars, and cabooses following me”, and that it was necessary to isolate his personal life from his depiction of King Louis XV on screen.

“That's the most difficult thing,” he says. “Get rid of all the baggage and expectations and get it done quick.”

Maiwenn also touched upon the media attention that the trial brought, and for some time wondered whether Depp was going to withdraw from the film.

“I said to myself, oh my god, maybe he's not going to do my movie because it's going to be so huge,” Maiwenn says. “I asked his agent if he’s still available and enjoying making movies. They said the question is ‘would you have him in your movie?’ I said yes, of couse, this is his private life. I showed them that I didn’t change my mind.”

Depp says what captivated him most about the king’s character was the several personas he embodied. “As king of France, you’re going to behave one way with the court, you’re going to behave differently when speaking with leaders of other countries. I was looking into that aspect of it.

"The various sides that he's had to learn to be since birth, at the very least since he became king at 12. He was not the luckiest of kings. Although he was not the unluckiest.”

Maiwenn was also keen to use 35mm film while shooting Jeanne du Barry, marking a first in her career. She says she has long aimed to make a film using 35mm, and that if she ever used the medium, it would have to be in a historical film.

“The movies, which talk about a specific historical time period that we're not using the 35mm, I thought that it had an impact on the movie at the end,” she says. “When there is movement with carriages and horses and it goes by very fast, I could see it. I could see that it was shot using [digital] video.”

She also decided on 35mm film to add an extra layer of pressure on actors, saying they would have to be “extra cautious about what they would say".

“If they were too spontaneous and if they made a blunder, there would be consequences. The camera therefore forced all involved on set to think about what they were going to say before saying it.”

Updated: December 08, 2023, 4:17 PM