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    “Royal whore” or feminist hero? The scandalous truth about Johnny Depp's Jeanne DuBarry

    Maiwenn in the film “Jeanne du Barry” Photo: Stephanie Branchu

    Cinema audiences will finally be able to watch “Jeanne du Barry” – the sex-soaked Louis saga “Mistress XV,” which premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Directed by French director Maiwenn (who also stars), it was billed as the first step towards Johnny Depp's redemption. Depp, running around Versailles in a wig and white face paint, as an 18th-century king is his first role since the trial of him and his ex-wife Amber Heard.

    Speaking at the UK premiere earlier this week, Maiwenn told viewers she had wanted to make the film “since 2016”. “I was obsessed with Jeanne du Barry for many years because she was a feminist before anyone else.”

    Maiwenn's assessment of DuBarry's feminist views may be new, but her interest in the courtesan—Louis XV's last official mistress and victim of the violence of the French Revolution—is hardly new. “The Royal Whore” has appeared in ten films (from a 1915 silent production to Sofia Coppola's 2006 Marie Antoinette), two operas, and several plays and TV series. Even Dostoevsky could not resist the pull of her story: in his 1869 novel The Idiot, one of his drunken characters recounts how he prays for the “rest” of DuBarry’s soul: “The Countess who rose from shame to reign like a Queen.” , which was guillotined “to satisfy the Parisian fishmongers.”

    Feminist hero or “great sinner” – who was Jeanne DuBarry? As biographers piece together the facts of her life, they sound like the plot of a salacious 19th-century novel.

    Jeanne Becoux, born in 1743 (she later adjusted her age by several years), was the illegitimate daughter of a poor seamstress. According to one version, her father was a monk; a shadowy figure, ironically named Brother Angel, who will later appear at her wedding disguised as her uncle. Jeanne's childhood was divided between the sacred and the secular. Before entering the convent, she spent time with the courtesan of one of her mother's former lovers – all in magnificent dresses and ornate hairbrushes.

    When she appeared at the age of 15, she chose sex over the sacraments: after a short period of work as a hairdresser and saleswoman (and support love of luxury due to her relationships with willing men), she became a kept woman. She began living with a disreputable nobleman, Jean-Baptiste du Barry, a pimp who supplied young women to other aristocrats and earned himself the nickname “Rouet”.

    There is some debate as to whether this relationship – the one that defined the rest of Jeanne's life – was a choice. During a later interrogation, Zhanna's mother admitted that her daughter's move occurred only after the money changed hands. Technically still a minor, Jeanne was sold into the life of a courtesan.

    By all accounts, Jeanne was stunningly beautiful. Blond-haired and blue-eyed, with the purity of a Fragonard painting, Jean-Baptiste du Barry worked on his protégé, teaching her the way of life at Versailles.

    Transformation: Countess Jeanne du Barry, painting by François Hubert Drouet, 18th century. Photo: Photo Josset/Lemage

    Jeanne began a paroxysm of reinvention: dressed in silks and diamonds, she called herself Mademoiselle Lange before switching to Mademoiselle Vaubernier. She spent nights with dukes and courtiers before one day she was taken to Versailles and met the king at mass. After the queen's death in 1768, Jeanne became his mistress.

    There was just one problem: to be an official mistress, a woman had to be married (presumably to a very lenient husband). Delighted by his closeness to his goals (by making Joan the royal favorite he would gain access to the royal purse), Jean-Baptiste du Barry resolved the predicament. He provided his little fat brother, who promptly married a woman he wasn't even allowed to touch. The transformation of Jeanne Becoux was completed: she became Countess du Barry. She even had a carriage with her false coat of arms on the side.

    The life of the new Madame du Barry was both brilliant and at the same time terribly lonely. She was presented to court, to great shock and horror because of her low birth; she moved into apartments above the king, to the horror of those who remembered when they sheltered the king's daughter-in-law; she tried to communicate in a treacherous, closed world that despised her. Marie Antoinette almost refused to talk to her.

    Johnny Depp as Louis XV and Maiwenn as Jeanne du Barry Photo: Stephanie Branchu

    Jeanne received a respite from material wealth: she was given an exorbitant allowance of two hundred thousand livres a month, and she was accompanied by as many as sixteen footmen and maids. One of her retinue was Zamor, a slave from Bengal given to Joan by the king. With a callousness that backfired, Jeanne treated it as just another accessory: a hint of the exotic in her world of bejeweled shoes, rosewood tables and gold-embroidered dresses. It is not surprising that decades later, during the Revolution, Marat declared that “the National Assembly spent in a whole year scarcely a quarter of what the old sinner Louis XV spent on the last and most expensive of his whores.”

    Jeanne's enchanted life could not last forever. Despite the efforts the king put into the bedroom (he told one of his courtiers that Joan was providing “pleasures that were completely new to him”; the courtier joked in response: “That's because, sir, you've never been in a brothel”), Louis XV was an old man. He died in 1774 from smallpox, cared for by his mistress.

    Dolores del Rio in the film “Madame DuBarry” (1934) Photo: Alamy

    From that moment on, the courtesan's life took a number of bizarre turns. Immediately after the accession of Louis XVI to the throne, the wife of the new king, Marie Antoinette, sent Jeanne to a monastery: she exchanged her morning hot chocolate for Matins, and her castles for a cell. Two years later she was allowed to leave: without reforming, she resumed a life full of luxury and love affairs. She still retained her beauty and amazing collection of diamonds and jewelry.

    When the French Revolution began in 1789, Joan continued her generally normal life: her home became a refuge where she and her last lover, the Duke de Brissac, could pretend that nothing was happening. While Paris was rioting, Jeanne took a fragrant bath; While the royal family was being harangued, Jeanne went to meet her hairdresser.

    But this could not go on forever: Jeanne’s frivolity hid the full depth of her political activity. There is evidence that throughout 1791 she attempted to send money to royalist emigrants. She was arrested by Zamor, her Bengali slave. He joined the Jacobins and supplied the revolutionary Committee of Public Safety with incriminating details about his mistress.

    Scandal: DuBarry won the heart of the king Photo: Stephanie Branchu

    Jeanne was tried and executed in 1793. She tried to escape her fate by telling her captors the exact location where she had buried her jewelry, but she was still taken to the guillotine screaming, “You're going to hurt me! Please don't hurt me!”

    It may be difficult to understand what Maiwenn meant by Jeanne du Barry's “feminism” (is that the age-old feminist principle of being sold into prostitution?). The enduring appeal of Jeanne's story seems much less progressive: that of the titillating appeal of a whore who meets her grisly end. But she is also a portrait of her age inverted: a woman of low birth, executed as an aristocrat; mistress killed by her slave.

    Jeanne du Barry is in cinemas now

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