Maïwenn: ” I ended up making a period film because I fell in love with Jeanne.”
Maïwenn exudes so much inner peace that when I met her, all the gossip around her vanished. It was a very hot Saturday at the end of October when we met at the newly restored 19th century house of Maria Mihăescu (or Mița Biciclista as many know her). Maïwenn was in Bucharest attending the premiere of her latest film, Jeanne du Barry, screened at Les Films de Cannes à Bucarest. Few months before our meeting, I had heard mostly bad things about her, such as how she spit on a journalist in Cannes, or how she is an anti-feminist. Watching her films, I found the latter accusation quite ironic. After all, she has written and directed a film about one of the first feminists the world had ever seen: Comtesse du Barry, maîtresse-en-titre of King Louis XV.
Throughout our conversation, Maïwenn took long pauses to reflect on my questions and made sure she gave complete answers. She seemed grounded and humble. Smart, but without questioning too much her artistic journey and what brought her where she is now. Her tumultuous childhood has given her a sensibility any artist needs but it would be unfair to presume that’s the only reason her films are appreciated. She is very involved in all aspects of an artist’s life and approach, always paying attention to the details, even when she’s acting she learns from the directors she works with. But when a project is over, she’s not preoccupied anymore with the way her work will be perceived. Because for Maïwenn art is more a way of living and her films are a part of her process of getting to know herself better as an artist. She never thought she’d make a period film but in the end, love brought her here – the love for a character she discovered is so much like her. Jeanne du Barry will soon launch in all Romanian cinemas so we talked about the main character, how she ended up doing a period film and what moves her as a human being and artist.
What does cinema mean to you as a person and as an artist?
It’s a topic we could debate endlessly. I believe this profession suits me best, I don’t know what else I could have done. I feel like an artist throughout my body – whether it’s writing, acting, directing, or painting. I’m interested in all forms of art, and, moreover, I’m a great consumer of art. It’s like reading the press and being interested in everything that happens in the world but from the perspective of a sensitive person. And of course, speaking of that, I read the press every morning; I need to stay updated on everything happening in the cultural sphere. In my opinion, an artist is like a bridge between the world and politics, it’s our role to explain politics in a way that people can understand it.
You started acting at a very young age, but in 2003, you decided to try directing. Why?
It was an opportunity that came out of nowhere. I was performing in a play and some friends who came to see it offered me to direct a short film, and I accepted immediately. I thought, “Why not? It will be an experience.” But the short film was made in a very academic and childish manner. Right after that, I had the chance to act in a film by Claude Lelouch, and watching him work gave me a different perspective on what it means to direct a film. I was under the impression that the shot list, the dialogue, and the mise-en-scène had to be treated in a very academic way, when, in fact, the most important thing is to find your identity as an artist, your own voice. After the experience with Claude, I began working on a screenplay, and I immediately found my identity. After directing the film, I fell in love with this profession.
Your latest film, Jean Du Barry is completely different from your previous ones. How did you end up making a period film, what determined you to go in this direction?
Lately, I’ve been improving my knowledge of cinema by watching countless films, and my tastes have evolved. A few years ago, I was convinced I could never make a period film, but I fell in love with this character while watching Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, where Comtesse du Barry is played by Asia Argento, and I didn’t want to part with her. I started reading books about her and researching the era – from history to religion, to the political and social life of France during that period. That’s when I discovered that in both Sofia Coppola’s film and other adaptations, she was portrayed very differently than I had found her in the books I had read. I didn’t think it was fair that she was presented strictly as a provocative woman, as a seductress. I felt the need to tell her story, to rehabilitate her image.
I felt very close to her, as if she were my sister. I never set out to make a period film, but I ended up making one because I fell in love with Jeanne, and she’s a character from another era.
If one day I fall in love with a Martian character, I’ll probably try to make a film on Mars (laughs). Love is what guides me towards a particular era or character.
What do you think made Jeanne so different from the other ladies at court?
The fact that she was a free-thinking woman, the way she related to her body, the way she looked and chose to dress. Although she wanted to be loved and accepted, she didn’t want to give up her beliefs and values. That impressed me.
When did you decide to take on the lead role?
At first, I wanted to work with an actress but she disappointed me on a personal level. Because I felt so close to the character, I decided to take on the role myself. I saw myself in her completely. The paradox is that we come from two very different eras – Jeanne comes from a deeply racist era, whereas today we are much more tolerant, and class differences are no longer a barrier between people.
I have read you’re not a feminist. However, Jeanne is a very brave, unapologetic woman that was a feminist, a woman who fought for being herself. After all, what is your opinion about feminism?
It bothers me that we still talk about this, and I know all too well how such statements come out, which I find very disturbing. I’ve been making films for 15 years, and in all my films, the heroine is a woman, whether I play her or someone else. I’m outraged by these news stories, journalists always seek headlines that sell, so they use phrases like ‘I’m not a feminist’. But the term has many nuances. I believe that being a feminist doesn’t mean being against men, and because of that, there are certain people who decide that I’m not a feminist. As if radical feminism is the only way to interpret it, and those who aren’t radical aren’t feminists.
The feminist movement doesn’t belong to the radicals alone, and I don’t think it’s healthy to see things only in black and white.
I don’t buy into this whole “we have to fight men, start a war against them” mentality; it’s counterproductive. The feminist movement can only move forward if we collaborate with men.
Do you remember the day when Johnny Depp said yes to the role of Louis XV?
Yes, it was 2019, we were in London. We had a meeting at 3 PM and we stayed until midnight, talking about life, history, art. About everything except for cinema. And we spoke only in French; I wanted to see if he could carry on a conversation. There were moments when he struggled because he lacked certain words in his vocabulary, but his accent was impeccable.
I read a lot about you, and I watched some of your films. You didn’t have an easy life growing up. Would you say your experiences formed your artistic vision?
Obviously yes but I don’t know how or in which way, exactly.
I think all artists are broken, at least all the artists that I love.
But I think it’s wrong to assume that only because my life wasn’t easy, I ended up doing films that receive recognition. It’s a nice feeling to be appreciated for my work but that never healed my wounds, nor changed my past. Suffering gives me a sensibility that I think it’s essential for an artist but it’s also quite exhausting.
And in the end, I’m proud of all my movies because it is so difficult to make movies so whatever the result, I’ll be proud just because I made them. Of course, they have mistakes, but it’s a process, a way to learn things. The paradox is that you think it gets easier with each film you make, but in fact, it’s more tiring.
Film producer and founder of ADFR, she dreamed since she was little of having a magazine one day. Alongside her job as editor-in-chief, she writes the interview of the month. She loves animals, jazz music and films festivals.
Jeanne du Barry
Maïwenn, Johnny Depp, Benjamin Lavernhe
The life of Jeanne Bécu who was born as the illegitimate daughter of an impoverished seamstress in 1743 and went on to rise through the Court of Louis XV to become his last official mistress.