Maïwenn Le Besco profile: the ‘eyebrow-raising’ director behind Johnny Depp’s comeback

Cannes Film Festival has come under fire for selecting a film starring Johnny Depp as its opener this year, less than a year after the actor won a bitter defamation trial against his ex-wife Amber Heard.

Just as controversial as the film’s place at the top of the famed festival’s running order, however, is the director behind the film, Maïwenn Le Besco. 

“Jeanne du Barry” centres on a commoner’s climb to become the favourite consort of King Louis XV of France, played by Depp. As well as directing the film, Le Besco, who goes by the mononym Maïwenn in her native France, stars as du Barry. 

Her own climb to the top of French cinema has been a long one, featuring twists and turns every bit as compelling as the intrigues of the eponymous character she plays in her latest film.

Who is Maïwenn?

Maïwenn was born in 1976 in the Paris suburb of Les Lilas and was pushed into showbiz by her artist mother, Catherine Belkhodja, according to the story she later told in her stand-up show “Le Pois Chiche”. 

Despite her initial reservations about a career as an actor, Maïwenn found early success with a major role in Jean Becker’s “L’été meurtrier” (One Deadly Summer) in 1983 alongside Isabelle Adjani. 

At the age of just 16, she married director Luc Besson, who was 17 years her senior, and they had a daughter together. The pair had met when she was 12, The Washington Post reported, and she later said his film, “Leon: The Professional”, which introduced the world to Natalie Portman at the age of 11, was based on their relationship.

Maïwenn then had roles in several other Besson films including the worldwide blockbuster “The Fifth Element” (1997).

After her divorce, Maïwenn reinvented herself as a stand-up comedian “to much acclaim”, France Today said. However, she soon returned to acting and then turned her hand to directing.

Her most successful early film was “Polisse” in 2011, which earned her the Jury Prize at Cannes. Then in 2015, her film “Mon roi” (My King), which took her a decade to complete, was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. 

Today she has become a “vocal opponent of #MeToo”, The Washington Post said, 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”. She admitted to assaulting him on the chat show “Quotidien”.

“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,” said The Telegraph.

‘At loggerheads’ with Johnny Depp

Maïwenn has faced questions over her decision to cast Depp in her most recent film, in a role that, according to The New York Times, could rehabilitate his career. “Why him? Because I wanted to work with him,” she told Screen Daily. “And better to be loyal to one’s desire than loyal to one’s… Frenchness.”

The announcement that a film with Depp in a leading role would be screening after the Cannes opening ceremony “sparked division online”, The New York Times said, with some criticising the festival organisers, and the hashtag #CannesYouNot was soon circulating.  

Maïwenn responded she knew she would face some backlash, but never wavered, even amid the actor’s legal difficulties.

“Of course I questioned it, but I decided [the Depp-Heard case] was his private life and I couldn’t bring judgement because we saw it was one word against the other, so the best way out of it was to say, ‘It’s none of my business,’” she said.

Rumours have subsequently circulated that Depp and his director were “at loggerheads throughout filming”, said The Telegraph, and that “she cut most of his dialogue as a result”. 

She half-denied the assertion: “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.”

How the film will be received remains to be seen but “whether it is a masterpiece, a flop or anything in between”, said The Telegraph, “Maïwenn is likely to continue to remain one of the most talked-about figures in contemporary French cinema… And that, you suspect, is exactly how she likes it.”