Johnny Depp’s return to the spotlight at this year’s Cannes Film Festival would usually be the major story of the day, not least because Cannes boss Thierry Fremaux – in remarks that might have been less helpful than he intended – stated, of Depp’s reappearance: “If there’s one person in this world who didn’t find the least interest in this very publicised trial, it’s me. I don’t know what it’s about. I also care about Johnny Depp as an actor.”
Dismissing speculation that Depp’s presence somehow legitimised sexual assault – he remarked to press: “If you thought that it’s a festivals for rapists, you wouldn’t be here listening to me, you would not be complaining that you can’t get tickets to get into screenings” – Fremaux nevertheless felt duty-bound to suggest that journalists addressed their comments to a figure who is even more controversial than the beleaguered actor. That would be Maïwenn Le Besco (simply known as Maïwenn), the director of Depp’s new film Jeanne du Barry.
It is fair to say that most filmmakers, if they were about to present a large-budget period epic about the relationship between Louis XV and his mistress at Cannes, would not set about trying to grab distracting headlines with the vigour with which Maïwenn has.
Yet, as one of France’s most discussed figures, she has never shied away from publicity, whether good or bad, and her latest exploits seem entirely true to form. In March, she allegedly assaulted Edwy Plenel, editor-in-chief of the investigative online newspaper Mediapart, in a restaurant, by walking over to his table, tilting his head back, spitting in his face and then leaving the venue without saying anything else.
Plenel suggested that the assault was “damaging on a moral and psychological level” and that he was “very traumatised” by the event. Maïwenn, however, dealt with it with insouciance. When she appeared on the chat show Quotidien, she gaily dispensed with any possibility of her innocence. “Do I confirm that I assaulted him? Yes,” she declared. (Plenel is suing her for damages.) Maïwenn then refused to discuss it further: “It’s not the time. I’ll speak about it when I’m ready. I’m very anxious about the release of my film.”
Whatever the reception that Jeanne du Barry receives at its premiere and upon its release in France, rumours have already circulated that Depp and his director were at loggerheads throughout filming, and that she cut most of his dialogue as a result. She half-denied this: “For me, as someone who wants a less talky film, it’s fascinating to see everything that Johnny conveys through his face, his gaze. Like a silent actor.”
Nonetheless, she also confessed in an interview with Premiere magazine that the collaboration between the two could often be tricky. “Johnny is a star, a king… and an American!” she said. “I was told not to let him know that we were waiting for him to shoot a scene, I was not allowed to knock on the door of his dressing room. One day, I did it anyway. And there, he made me understand that I had committed an unacceptable intrusion and asked me how I would have felt if he came knocking on my dressing room door. I replied that everyone does it all the time. Because that’s how a set works in France!”
She also suggested that some of the tension that arose between them came from culture clashes. “I understood that in the United States, the stars don’t really get directed,” she told the magazine. “They explain to the director how they are going to play the scene and the director follows the flow. But in France, the boss is the director. So for every take, I obviously shot his proposals, but I also asked him to interpret my own vision, so we could have a choice during editing. He was game for that.”
So far, Depp has not made any public comment of his own about his collaboration with the actor-writer-director; but no doubt the film’s press conference will be an interesting one, to say the least.
Yet controversy is to Maïwenn what daffodils were to Wordsworth. She first launched herself into the public eye when she embarked on a career as a child actress, allegedly at the behest of her mother, of whom she has said: “She is a poison for me… she poisoned my life.” She met the all-powerful French director and producer Luc Besson when she was 12 and he was 29; they embarked upon a relationship when Maïwenn was 15, married when she turned 16 and they had a daughter together the same year.
If this wasn’t eyebrow-raising enough, Besson repeatedly said that the relationship between Jean Reno’s hitman and Natalie Portman’s schoolgirl in his 1994 film Léon was inspired by his own relationship with Maïwenn; those seeking further insights into their marriage should watch the extended director’s cut of the picture, which contains a distinctly queasy scene in which Portman’s character asks the eponymous assassin to take her virginity. The actress was 12 at the time.
Maïwenn herself confirmed that the film had an autobiographical element, saying: “When Luc Besson did Léon , the story of a 12-year-old girl in love with an older man, it was very inspired by us since it was written while our story started. But no media made the link.” She described the movie as “this love story between a 12-year-old girl and a 30-year-old man [that] was still very much inspired by ours.”
Although Maïwenn and Besson separated a few years later, after he met the actress Milla Jovovich on the set of the space epic The Fifth Element – in which his former wife cameos as a eight-foot blue alien opera singer – she continues to maintain a friendship with him, and it has been speculated that she assaulted Plenel because of stories that Mediapart ran about Besson being accused of rape by several women. (None of the charges have been substantiated.)
In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar to promote Jeanne du Barry, she drew parallels between Louis XV’s relationship with Jeanne and her own involvement with Besson: “When I was younger, I was with a man who had power in the cinema,” she said. “I remember like it was yesterday, the weight of the looks on me, the silences that spoke volumes. I have even been told words and comments, well after the end of this story, which deeply hurt me. Especially since I was with him out of interest. As if love, sincere love, could not exist between a young girl from a working class background and a man of power. As if everything had to be perverted. Versailles could be a metaphor for movie people. I felt that violently, until I made my own films.”
Certainly, those who look to Maïwenn as a feminist icon and role model are likely to be disappointed. Although she has achieved great acclaim as a filmmaker, winning the Jury Prize at Cannes for her 2011 film Polisse, a crime drama about the Child Protection Unit in the Paris police, she is highly contemptuous about many of today’s hot-button issues. Not only has she criticised feminists as “women who do not like men”, but she has been equally scornful about the proponents of the #MeToo movement. “I recognise that women abused by men are often fragile women,” she told Paris Match. “Now, me, if I agree to go to a man’s room at 1am, I suspect that it is not to talk about a role.”
Yet she is also fiercely proud of what she has achieved in her career, saying of the similarities between her and Jeanne: “A lot of things bind me to her. She left school at 15, like me. She was very curious, with an unquenchable thirst for learning, like me. She needed to be admired, to be accepted… For all these reasons, I feel close to her.”
It remains to be seen how her new film is received. But whether it is a masterpiece, a flop or anything in between, Maïwenn is likely to continue to remain one of the most talked-about figures in contemporary French cinema. Compared to her, even the notorious Depp is likely to remain second fiddle. And that, you suspect, is exactly how she likes it.