Cannes Gave Johnny Depp a Comeback Shot. Then Came the Press Conference
The guy with the slick, black ponytail worked the crowd, signing autographs and pressing the flesh, and posing for selfies, like it was still 2011 and nothing had changed at all. In France, maybe nothing had really changed. Here, on this red carpet, Johnny Depp remained the biggest movie star in the world, and the fans had never stopped screaming themselves hoarse (“Johnny! Johnn-yyyyy!”). When he took his seat inside the Grand Lumière theater in full gala-premiere mode, the audience applauded loudly. Depp winked at the camera, which was beaming a close-up of his face onto giant screens in both the Lumière and the press screening happening next door. Other than the handful of protesters, the “We support you!” signs — and also the variety of folks in the press who’ve openly questioned why the world’s most prestigious film festival would program one of the actor’s movies, much less as the opening-night selection — it was as if that whole alleged-sexual-assaults, tabloid-court-case, disgraced-actor-spiraling-out-of-control thing had all been some sort of forgotten fever dream.
Welcome to Cannes, where a period drama about an 18th-century courtesan has somehow become the single most scandalous thing to happen to the French film fest in a decade. It’s not because Jeanne du Barry, the writer-director-star Maïwenn’s biopic of the ex-prostitute who became the lover of King Louis XV, angered high society with her presence at the court of Versailles, and was executed during the French Revolution, is designed to offend the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeois. Although it was inspired by Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, this retelling of Du Barry’s royal romance, rise, and fall could not be a more stock historical drama, even with its A Putain’s Progress-style storyline. In all respects but one, it could not be a safer, more Catholic choice to kick off the world’s most significant celebration of le cinéma.
That one respect, though — it’s a significant one. Because after several French actors turned down the role of Louis XV, Maïwenn cast Depp to play the besotted king. He’d already been dealing with the aftermath of an extraordinarily messy divorce and had been accused of being a “wife beater” by the British newspaper The Sun (he’d soon lose a libel case against the publication). His role in the Fantastic Beasts franchise was recast. You could characterize his career as spiraling downward. Still, Maïwenn wanted him for the part, so he accepted.
Speaking of accepted: The finished film was then chosen to kick off the 2023 edition of Cannes, with festival director Thierry Frémaux defending the inclusion this past April by saying, “I don’t see [it] as a controversial choice at all … we only know one thing, it’s the justice system, and I think he won the legal case.” This laissez-faire attitude was not shared by everyone, and by the time of the festival’s opening press conference this past Monday, Frémaux declared, “I don’t know about the image of Johnny Depp in the U.S. … If there’s one person in this world who didn’t find the least interest in this very publicized trial, it’s me. I don’t know what it’s about. I also care about Johnny Depp as an actor.”
Frémaux may well have been blissfully ignorant of Depp’s soiled reputation as a marquee name outside of France, as well as the particulars of the 2022 court case that had only made his celebrity more radioactive, and the culture wars around the #MeToo movement and online fandom that much more divisive. He’s got a giant festival to run. Yet someone who’s a major player on the international film scene must have known that the inclusion of Jeanne du Barry, which many were already calling a “comeback” for the star, at Cannes would be viewed as a pro forma affirmation of Depp overall and thus cause controversy.
And not that the quality of the film would make it A-OK one way or the other, but to see the festival risk dying on such a feeble hill is even more head-scratching. Maïwenn is an extremely talented filmmaker, and a Cannes mainstay: Her 2011 procedural Polisse won the jury prize at the festival, and My King, her 2015 drama about [cough] an emotionally abusive marriage competed for the Palme d’Or. (She has also had some, er, confrontational encounters with the media over the issue of alleged abusers.) While her latest is clearly designed to be an ambitious, epic take on this historical figure and a plum star vehicle for herself, what you get is a curiously listless, cliché-infested period piece that makes you question why, exactly, she wanted to tell this story. The lack of heat, chemistry, and momentum doesn’t help. A colleague’s response after the screening was simply, “Why is that movie?” It’s a genuine Maï-diocrity.
But the weakest link is, in fact, Depp himself — he’s a walking waxwork statue here, a movie star who’s somehow reduced to being a meat puppet in old-fashioned dandy-fop cosplay. It’s not just that he may have aged less gracefully than others; Depp is not a 22-year-old actor, and it seems ridiculous to speculate about any reasons for his appearance. What strikes you when you watch him in Jeanne du Barry is that the camera, which once swooned whenever he stepped in front of it, doesn’t seem to love Johnny Depp anymore. Every ounce of his screen presence, his charisma, that singular magical factor that always made you unable to look away from him, no matter what the role or the film — it feels like it’s just been sucked away. His King Louis shuffles from scene to scene, in what is supposed to be an underplayed performance that registers as inert. Even when he’s mugging at Jeanne through a two-way mirror while receiving guests, there still feels like there’s no life happening up there. You can’t even call what he’s doing a compelling car wreck. You’d have to wait for the press conference the next day for that.
Depp showed up near the end of the event, which had already started close to a half-hour late. It may have been a blessing for his costars and the director, as the latter fielded questions from the mostly French press about why she cast Depp, her fascination with the subject, why she didn’t include certain aspects of Du Barry’s life and death, etc. The empty chair with his name tag in front of it spoke volumes. Then: Herrrre’s Johnny! And it took one question — Do you feel boycotted by Hollywood? — to completely, predictably derail everything.
“Did I feel a boycott?” Depp replied. “You have to not have a pulse to feel this isn’t happening. Of course when you’re asked to resign from a film because of … [long pause] something which is merely a bunch of vowels and consonants in the air. I don’t think about Hollywood. I don’t feel much further need for Hollywood.”
He continued: “It’s a very strange, very funny time when [long pause] everyone would love to be themselves. But they can’t because … they must fall in line with the person in front of them. If you want to follow that line, be my guest. I’ll be on the other side of whatever that is.”
A few questions later, Depp returned to the subject of why anyone would be interested in hearing the “fantastically, horrifically written fiction” in regard to his behavior and lawsuits and the allegations made against him. “The fact is, we’re here to talk about the film. But it’s like asking the question, ‘How are you doing?’ [And] what’s underneath in the subtext is, ‘God, I hate you.’ That’s the media thing.”
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Finally, asked by an American reporter what Depp would say to anyone who didn’t think he should have come to Cannes, the actor dropped what may be the most odd metaphor ever to be uttered, in any language, at a film festival press conference. “Imagine that they said to me, I cannot go to McDonald’s [long pause] … for life [long pause] … because somewhere [long pause] if you got them all in one room, 39 people watched me eat a Big Mac on a loop. Who are they? Why do they care? Some species [long pause] … a tower of mashed potatoes covered in light from a computer screen?”
There were a few more questions, but that was essentially that. Jeanne du Barry may end up being a footnote in the history of Cannes. This press conference may go down as the unforgettable equivalent of watching the Hindenburg crash into the Palais.
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