Saudi Arabia seeks prestige at Cannes with Johnny Depp drama, Jeanne du Barry

As the kingdom presses on with its film industry plans, Chris Newbould explains what it could learn from the success of its regional neighbours

Johnny Depp as Louis XV in Jeanne Du Barry. Photo: Le Pacte
Powered by automated translation

The Cannes Film Festival, the most prestigious in the industry calendar, opens its doors tonight with several films from across the Arab world among those rubbing shoulders with giants such as Wes Anderson, Ken Loach and Wim Wenders.

The Gulf will be making its mark from the moment the curtain is raised, with festival opener Jeanne du Barry.

The historical drama, from French writer-director Maiwenn, stars Johnny Depp as King Louis XV and Maiwenn as his titular mistress. It is part-funded by Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Foundation, the body that runs the Red Sea Film Festival and also serves as executive producer on Jeanne.

The foundation is no stranger to international co-production. Since it started up in 2019, it has given development, production and post-production support to about 170 films from the Arab world and Africa through programmes such as the Red Sea Fund and Red Sea Lodge.

Jeanne du Barry isn’t even the only Red Sea-backed film at Cannes this year. It has also supported Four Daughters, from Tunisia’s Kaouther Ben Hania; Banel & Adama, from Senegalese Ramata-Toulaye Sy; Goodbye Julia, by Bahrain-based Sudanese director Mohamed Kordofani and, from Morocco, Asmae El-Moudir’s The Mother of All Lies and Kamal Lazraq’s Hounds.

However, Maiwenn’s film marks its first French co-production, and at first glance could seem a strange choice. The subject matter — a French court scandalised by the king’s decision to move his working-class mistress into the Palace of Versailles — could certainly raise eyebrows in conservative circles, and even see Jeanne fail to pass Saudi censors, home-grown funding or not.

The foundation’s January announcement of its involvement said the move “demonstrates the festival’s ongoing mission to support distinctive filmmaking and champion visionary female talent both on and behind the camera from around the world”.

Red Sea chief executive Mohammed Al Turki, the Saudi producer behind Hollywood hits such as 2014’s 99 Homes, added: “[This is] an incredibly unique and ambitious biographical feature and a testament to our commitment to supporting new talent and collaborating with world-class writers, directors and producers.”

The mutual benefits of the deal are clear. For Maiwenn and Depp, the arrival of funding to complete post-production would be welcome at any time. That it came from outside the glare of Hollywood following Depp’s bruising, long-running and extremely public legal battle with ex-wife Amber Heard can only have made the funds sweeter.

For the foundation, it signed up to the closest to a sure-thing there is in the business. The film had already finished shooting when it joined in January, with some distribution rights already sold at last year’s festival — it will be released in French cinemas immediately after its Cannes screening — and rumours of a high-profile slot this year were circulating long before last month’s line-up announcement.

Its stars are gold — Maiwenn, a huge name in French cinema, has appeared in global hits such as Leon and The Fifth Element, while Depp’s name is ubiquitous and has largely been cleared in the court of public opinion following the legal drama.

Depp’s much-Instagrammed visit to Saudi’s emerging AlUla media production zone immediately after the funding announcement doubtless added to its prestige.

We can also look closer to home for examples of why a seemingly culturally irrelevant international film makes perfect investment sense for a country seeking to build a film industry from scratch. When the nascent Imagenation Abu Dhabi announced, more than a decade ago, that it was entering co-production partnerships with Hollywood, some in the industry questioned the decision.

Jude Law, right, as Alan Krumwiede in the thriller Contagion. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

However, 2011 success at the Oscars for The Help, and at the box office for Contagion, both made in partnership with LA’s Participant Media, laid some doubts to rest.

Fast-forward to today and Abu Dhabi has grown into an international production hub, with Star Wars, Mission Impossible and Baby just some of the household names setting up base in the emirate, alongside a steady stream of production for local and regional TV and cinemas, including 2021’s record-breaking Al Kameen.

The attention gained from a high-profile Cannes film is incomparable too, such as in 2016 when, for one May afternoon, the UAE pavilion became the focal point for the world’s media as it hosted Palestinian director Nasri Hajjaj.

His unfinished film, the Enjaaz-funded Munich: A Palestinian Story, had unexpectedly become the most-talked-about at the festival following attempts to ban it, resulting in global press cramming into neighbouring country pavilions in the hope of catching a fleeting quote after the UAE’s hit capacity.

In Saudi Arabia, cinemas were banned until 2018. Although the kingdom could set about building a film industry from nothing, it seems likely to get there much quicker by teaming up with someone who’s been there, done that and got the “someone went to Cannes and all they got me was this” T-shirt. Depp and co have a fully stocked t-shirt drawer, and that is surely the definition of “education on cinema”.

Updated: May 16, 2023, 5:39 AM