Cannes Rolls Out Red Carpet for Johnny Depp, but Will Audiences Be as Welcoming?

Johnny Depp’s once white-hot career has flamed out in the wake of his many scandals, but the controversial actor has every reason to expect a movie star welcome when he hits Cannes on Tuesday for the premiere of “Jeanne du Barry.” The costume drama is Depp’s first leading role in three years, a period of time in which the star has mostly made headlines for his ongoing legal battles with ex-wife Amber Heard (he lost a 2020 libel case involving her abuse allegations in the U.K., only to win another one in the U.S. in 2022).

But through that tempestuous period, one that saw Depp fired from high-profile projects like the “Harry Potter” spinoff franchise “Fantastic Beasts,” Europe has remained a port in the storm. He has continued to be celebrated at film festivals throughout the continent with audiences loyally showing up to see the movies he has managed to make in between tabloid appearances. For its part, Cannes has pushed back at suggestions that it shouldn’t be offering Depp a platform given Heard’s accusations of abuse. The festival’s chief Thierry Fremaux framed showcasing “Jeanne du Barry” as a matter of free expression.

“I don’t know about the image of Johnny Depp in the U.S. 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 act within a legal framework,” Fremaux said during a combative press conference on Monday. “If Johnny Depp had been banned from acting in a film, or the film was banned, we wouldn’t be here talking about it.”

Depp won’t just be on the Croisette to promote his latest movie. He’s also hitting the Riviera to try to line up backers for his upcoming biopic of Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, which marks his return to the director’s chair after 1997’s critically reviled “The Brave.” If he can secure financing, Depp hopes to roll cameras in Budapest this fall.

For his part, Fremaux seems to have separated Depp’s art from his off-screen drama.

“As for the rest, I’m the last person to be able to discuss all this,” he told journalists. “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.”

And Cannes isn’t alone. The Deauville American Film Festival honored him with a career achievement award in 2019. The prize was given by Catherine Deneuve, who described him as a “fascinating chameleon” in her speech. A year later, Depp was back at Deauville where he was greeted like a rock star by hundreds of fans, and presented “City of Lies” directed by Brad Furman. He also spoke candidly to French journalists during a masterclass and called out Hollywood for “kidnapping” “City of Lies,” referring to the fact that Global Road Entertainment had canceled the theatrical release of the movie back in 2018 as Depp’s legal woes began to mount. 

Even after he lost his libel case against British tabloid The Sun, Depp continued being celebrated in Europe throughout 2021, with contentious tribute at Karlovy Vary and San Sebastian festivals. In both cases, the tributes sparked uproar from feminist organizations, but local press outlets barely alluded to the actor’s legal issues in their coverage. When questioned about Depp’s inclusion in the Deauville lineup, the festival’s artistic director Bruno Barde said, “Justice is where I draw the line. If someone is condemned, I don’t invite that person, even if I don’t agree with the ruling. But if there hasn’t been a conviction, I’m not going to act as a judge, and neither should social media.” 

Even more revealing than any festival awards is the fact that Dior not only retained Depp as its ambassador for the global ad campaign of his Sauvage fragrance since 2015, but it just signed a massive $20 million deal to renew his contract. The campaign from the luxury fashion house promotes Depp as a rakish rebel, who is pictured as he plugs in and then shreds an electric guitar in the middle of the desert.

Eric Marti, head of Comscore France, says French audiences have always had a soft spot for Depp. That is firstly because he’s considered half-French, having lived in the country for many years with Vanessa Paradis, a famous French actor and singer with whom he had two kids, including Lily-Rose Depp. He also starred opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg for a brief but cult scene in 2004’s “Ils se marierent et eurent beaucoup d’enfants.”

Marti also pointed out the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise and his other work has been hugely successful in France, where even a Depp bomb like “Alice Through the Looking Glass” performed well. But “Jeanne du Barry” will test the actor’s enduring popularity in the country.

“’Jeanne du Barry’ will be the first Johnny Depp movie since the trial is over, so we’ll see how it fares,” said Marti. 

The movie is budgeted in the $22 million range, a whopping price by French standards. It was financed by French indies, including production house Why Not, sales outfit Goodfellas (formerly Wild Bunch) and French distribution banner Le Pacte, as well as Netflix, which pre-bought second window rights for France only, French pubcaster France Televisions and Red Sea Film Foundation.

Filming of “Jeanne du Barry” was chaotic due to tensions and regular fights between the director Maiwenn and Depp, according to several sources close to the production. Depp was MIA from the press junket organized at the Versaille Palace ahead of Cannes, although he was in Paris three days before and resided at the Bristol Hotel. He even attended a screening of “Donnie Brasco” with Al Pacino at the Pantheon theater, a venue owned by “Jeanne du Barry’s” producer Pascal Caucheteux. Depp, who’s been in living in England for several years (after formerly residing in a 37-acre compound in the South of France), left Paris for Budapest on May 5 to prepare for the shoot of his movie “Modi” and is expected to turn up at the world premiere and press conference of “Jeanne du Barry” in Cannes. 

While he hasn’t given interviews about “Jeanne du Barry,” Depp is quoted in the press kit saying he prepared for the part with the help of two biographies on Louis XV, and also worked with a coach to be able to act in French.

“I speak a bit of French but to get closer to the French that people spoke in the 18th century, I worked with a coach,” said Depp. He also addressed his collaboration with Maiween and admitted “there might have been […] some tensions about filming some of my suggestions. But every time I insisted that she filmed at least one take, even if it ended up in the trash bin. I’m not saying all my suggestions were good […] but at least she had many alternatives.” 

Le Pacte will give the movie a wide release on 640 screens on May 16, on the same day as its world premiere in Cannes. 

And though French fans may turn out in force to see Depp stroll down the red carpet (perhaps in Dior?) — and will probably scream his name and ask for autographs and selfies — not everyone is celebrating the actor’s return to the limelight. Eve Barlow, a journalist, activist and close friend of Heard, has launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #CannesYouNot to call out the film festival for “celebrating abusers for 76 years.” On Instagram, she shared a photo from one of the actor’s libel trials, which shows a hollow-eyed Depp, his shoulders hunched over, looking far removed from his glamorous on-screen alter-ego.

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