CANNES, France — Johnny Depp’s career may be on shaky ground in the United States, but that’s definitely not the case here in France. The beleaguered star’s “Jeanne du Barry” got the splashiest and warmest of welcomes as the opening-night film of the Cannes Film Festival. Fans clamoring for selfies and autographs, with signs reading “We [heart] Johnny!” and “Viva Johnny?” Check. The 59-year-old actor sporting a tux on that famed red carpet in the perfect weather of the Côte d’Azur? Check. Lengthy standing ovation, plus a Twitter debate among journalists about whether it was seven minutes or, more accurately, three? Check.
A line of international gawkers had started forming midmorning on Tuesday, eight hours before stars were due to arrive, holding umbrellas and fans for sun protection or dressed in full-on sparkly gowns so they could meet the Cannes dress code in case someone gave them a ticket. They had come from as far as Japan just to watch Depp (and Helen Mirren and Elle Fanning and Uma Thurman) walk the red carpet. “Johnny! Johnny!” they chanted.
As Depp arrived, the carpet lit up with flashbulbs. Festival chief Thierry Frémaux gave him an enormous hug. When Depp and his director — the French actress and filmmaker Maïwenn — entered the theater hand in hand, the crowd gave them a standing ovation. Depp winked as a cameraman zoomed in on his face; the assembled responded rapturously. And it would happen all over again once the movie screened, following an opening ceremony for the festival in which Michael Douglas received an honorary Palme d’Or.
Only this time, post-film, when the cameraman zoomed in on his face during the standing ovation, Depp was wiping away tears. If Dior giving him $20 million in the biggest men’s fragrance deal ever last week wasn’t enough of redemption, being given the adored star treatment at the renowned film festival that has bestowed honors upon the greatest filmmakers the medium has ever known surely was.
Those outside the bubble of French film feting have expressed dismay and confusion over the storied festival treating Depp like a homecoming hero. But Depp is simply beloved in France, where he bought an entire village near St. Tropez that was his home during much of his 14-year relationship with French actress and singer Vanessa Paradis. (Depp currently has the estate on the market for $55 million.) He speaks only French in “Jeanne du Barry,” playing Louis XV smitten with Maïwenn’s brash courtesan, the titular Jeanne du Barry. A Frenchwoman next to me in the screening said that Depp was the best part of the film, and that she liked almost nothing else about the lush yet torpid period drama that was filmed in Versailles and was inspired by Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” My French seatmate said she was also quite impressed with Depp’s language skills. “His French was very good. Very good. He has a slight accent, but it is not a problem,” she said.
Less than a year has passed since sordid details of his volatile relationship with ex-wife Amber Heard were aired for six weeks in open court, in a trial that became a cultural phenomenon that many observers saw as a backlash to the #MeToo movement. At a news conference on Wednesday, Depp addressed his return to the festival and the idea that some people thought he shouldn’t have been there. “So we’re talking theoretically about what would I do if there were people who didn’t want me to go to the Cannes Film Festival?” he said. “What if one day they did not allow me, under no circumstances, no matter what, I cannot go to McDonald’s for life because somewhere if you got them all in one room, there’d be 39 angry people watching me eating a Big Mac on a loop just for fun. Who are they? Why do they care? Some species, some tower of mashed potatoes covering the light of the computer screen, anonymous, with apparently a lot of spare time. I don’t think I’m the one who should be worried. People should really think about what it’s all about, really.”
He also tried to downplay the idea that “Jeanne du Barry” represented a comeback. “I’ve had 17 comebacks apparently,” he said. “I keep wondering about the word ‘comeback’ because I didn’t go anywhere. Matter of fact, I live about 45 minutes away. … I’ve been sitting around. So ‘comeback,’ it’s almost like you want to come out and do a tap dance or some kind of spectacle. Get on a table and dance my best for you guys and hope that you approve. The notion of something like this is a bizarre mystery.”
Opening Cannes with Depp’s first starring vehicle in three years seems a deliberate, on-brand courting of controversy from a festival known for provocative films that incite boos, walkouts and French journalists shouting at the screen.
Depp emerged the “victor” of that 2022 civil trail, when a jury awarded him $15 million in June for his claims that Heard defamed him by referring to herself as a public figure representing domestic abuse in a 2018 op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post (in which she never specifically named Depp). But the jury also awarded Heard $2 million, finding that Depp had defamed her through his lawyer, when the lawyer called Heard’s abuse allegations “a hoax.” And, victory or not, the whole world was hearing testimony about Depp hitting Heard and her sister or seeing text messages in which Depp wrote things about Heard like, “I will f— her burnt corpse afterward to make sure she’s dead.”
Protesters at some French theaters handed out fliers that read: “WARNING. The film you are about to see … contains scenes featuring Johnny Depp, who is involved in proven acts of violence against his former wife Amber Heard.” (The film opened across the country at the same time as its Cannes debut.)
But compared to the un-simulated oral sex between Chloë Sevigny and Vincent Gallo in “The Brown Bunny” (which Roger Ebert declared to be “the worst film in the history of the festival”) or to the time when Lars von Trier said “I understand Hitler” during a seemingly pro-Nazi rant in a news conference that got him banned from Cannes while his film “Melancholia” was still showing, this controversy somehow seemed pretty tame.
That’s partly because of the film itself. Despite being about a lengthy affair that scandalized a nation, there is absolutely no nudity and only one sex scene, and that one doesn’t involve Depp.
Relatively small as it is, though, the Depp controversy has overtaken the news cycle from what is one of the splashier Cannes lineups in years, with Martin Scorsese’s epic “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City,” Todd Haynes’s “May December” (with Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore), and Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” (based on the Martin Amis novel and the director’s first feature in 10 years, since his sensationally strange “Under the Skin”) still to come.
On Monday, Frémaux defended his opening-film choice in the festival’s first news conference, saying he might have been the least interested person in the world about the trial. “I don’t know about the image of Johnny Depp in the U.S.,” he said. “To tell you the truth, in my life, I only have one rule, it’s the freedom of thinking, and the freedom of speech and acting within a legal framework. … If Johnny Depp had been banned from acting in a film, or the film was banned, we wouldn’t be here talking about it.”
By Tuesday afternoon, attention had shifted from Depp to jury member Brie Larson, a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement, who was taken aback when an American journalist asked whether she would be seeing the film. “You’re asking me that?” she responded. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the correlation or why me specifically.”
The journalist explained that he’d asked her because of her activism against misogyny in Hollywood. (Larson also notably did not clap when handing Casey Affleck his Best Actor Oscar in 2017, amid accusations of sexual misconduct against the actor.) “You’ll see, I guess, if I will see it,” Larson said. “And I don’t know how I’ll feel about it if I do.”
In addition to the “Jeanne du Barry” extravaganza, the festival is also debuting the upcoming HBO series “The Idol,” which stars Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose Depp, as a pop superstar who falls under the thrall of a cult leader played by Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd. That series, too, has been mired in controversy and delays, with “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson stepping in to re-haul it entirely after director Amy Seimetz had shot 80 percent of it, according to a Rolling Stone report. Now, critics say, it’s become a hyper-sexualized show about a woman who enjoys being abused.
The Cannes Film Festival has a long history of celebrating men with brilliant artistic outputs and questionable dealings with women. Roman Polanski won the Palme d’Or for “The Pianist” in 2002, while still facing charges of having sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl in 1977, and had no problem coming to France to accept it in person. This is, after all, the festival that programmed Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society” as the opening film in 2016, two years after the director’s stepdaughter, Dylan Farrow, had written an op-ed accusing him of sexually abusing her. The next day, Allen’s stepson, Ronan Farrow wrote an open letter to the media calling out their silence on Allen’s alleged abuses — and the cast of the film had to spend the rest of the festival dodging journalists’ questions about whether they’d read the op-ed and regretted being in the movie.
Just before this year’s festival, one of France’s leading actresses, Adèle Haenel (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), wrote a letter announcing she was quitting acting because of the French film industry’s “complacency toward sexual aggressors” — referring to accusations against Polanski and Gerard Depardieu. As for Cannes, she said the festival was “ready to do anything to defend their rapist chiefs.”
Asked about the letter, Frémaux retorted: “You wouldn’t be here complaining that you can’t get tickets if you thought we were all rapists.”
Maïwenn, too, is a controversial figure. She married director Luc Besson when she was 16 and he was 32; they’d met when she was 12, and she has said his film, “Leon: The Professional,” which introduced the world to Natalie Portman, was based on their relationship. She’s a vocal opponent of #MeToo and is going through her own round of being accused of attacking a French journalist in a restaurant, pulling his hair and spitting in his face.
While Depp was unquestionably the centerpiece of opening night, it does seem like the festival will quickly move on. As he and other stars went to a fancy festival-sponsored dinner, young filmmakers partied at the festival’s opening party on the beach. There were Campari cocktails and three types of delicious pasta and two types of sorbet on tiny cones and an entire table full of cheeses and another of charcuterie. The band was hopping, and soon there was a “Shallow” singalong. No one was thinking about Depp. After all, there was a 206-minute Scorsese film to look forward to.
Emily Yahr contributed to this report.