Column: On social media, Johnny Depp’s return was an outrage. At Cannes, it was a comeback

Johnny Depp in period costume as King Louis XV in "Jeanne du Barry."
Johnny Depp stars in “Jeanne du Barry.”
(Stéphanie Branchu)

There is a shop on the Rue Meynadier in Cannes called the Pirate’s Candies, and in its doorway stands a full-sized replica of Captain Jack Sparrow.

On Tuesday night, a few blocks away, Cap’n Jack’s original, Johnny Depp, walked the red carpet for opening night of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, which included the premiere of “Jeanne du Barry,” in which he plays French King Louis XV.

In the days leading up to the festival, the idea that Depp would be headlining Cannes caused a considerable amount of shock and outrage. Why, out of all the films in all the world, had festival programmers chosen the one showcasing an actor currently best known for his violent and highly litigious relationship with ex-wife Amber Heard? How would the audience and festival-goers react?


With nothing but cheers and applause, as it turns out.

Last spring, as Depp mumblecored his way through six weeks of agonizingly livestreamed testimony in his suit against Heard, it was difficult to imagine he would soon be headlining the most prestigious film festival in the world.

A year ago, the glory days of “Pirates of the Caribbean” seemed a distant memory for a man considered so controversial that he had been fired from a J.K. Rowling-related project.

Many wondered if this was how his career would end: not with a bang but a description of his nearly severed finger.

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Although a Virginia jury decided that Heard had in fact defamed Depp by describing herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse” in an essay for the Washington Post, many believed that Depp’s victory was another example of privilege tipping the scales of justice, if not a chilling backlash against the #MeToo movement.

All of which seemed a lot of unnecessary baggage to be hauling along the Croisette and up the famous steps to the Palais de Festival.

Yet there he was, nimbly decanting himself from a limo, sleek in a tux and a slicked-back ponytail, enthusiastically signing autographs for members of a crowd giddy with excitement (and possibly dehydration, considering that many had begun assembling under a relentless Riviera sun 10 hours before). Heard supporters took to social media in protest (#CannesYouNot) and announced with glee that they spotted a secret shout-out on Helen Mirren’s red-carpet fan. But on the ground, men flashed handmade collages of Depp photos, women hoping for a selfie leaned over the barriers so far that a few risked tipping over, and one woman held up a very small dog as if for Depp’s blessing.


(Mirren quickly pointed out that the #WorthIt on her fan referred not to #AmberIsWorthIt but festival sponsor L’Oreal’s slogan “Because you’re worth it” — she had picked up the giveaway because the evening was warm.)

Any gruesome memories of the “who hit whom” marital timeline that might have lingered were quickly obliterated by shouts of “Johnny, Johnny, JOHNNY.”

Depp stans are, of course, famous for their devotion, which in recent years had often been expressed through relentless and misogynistic targeting of Heard. Perhaps more important, this is Cannes, where a statue of the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow stands guard over barrels filled with candy and a liturgical devotion to cinematic art trumps concerns about scandal every time.

Indeed, when asked at a press conference on Monday about the decision to highlight Depp’s return to film after a three-year absence, festival president Thierry Fremaux waved away concerns. He claimed to have not followed the disturbing testimony last spring, or the deeply divided reaction to the jury’s decision. “I don’t know about the image of Johnny Depp in the U.S,” he said, adding, “If Johnny Depp had been banned from acting in a film, or the film was banned, we wouldn’t be here talking about it.”

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A day later, festival jury member Brie Larson froze when asked at a press conference if, as an outspoken supporter of #MeToo, she intended to see “Jeanne du Barry” and what she thought of the film. “Why are you asking me?” she asked in a rather heated tone. When reminded that she had advocated for the Hollywood organization Times Up, she said: “Well, you’ll see, I guess, if I see it, and I don’t know how I’ll feel about it if I do.”

Clearly the woman did not want to talk about it. And for the record, she and her fellow jury members were introduced at the opening-night event that preceded the screening.


Inside the Palais, the audience roared in approval when Depp and Maïwenn, who directed, stars in and co-wrote “Jeanne du Barry,” entered the theater for the festival’s opening ceremony. Hosted by Chiara Mastroianni, the evening included the presentation of an honorary Palme d’Or to Michael Douglas, who offered gravy to the crowd by saying, “There are hundreds of festivals around the world but there’s only one Cannes,” and a surprise appearance by Mastroianni’s mother, Catherine Deneuve. The face on this year’s festival poster, Deneuve paid tribute to Ukraine before almost forgetting to officially open the festival.

It was, with the exception of Douglas, very French and at times quite moving, but Depp was the palpably obvious focus of attention, even more so than Maïwenn, who is no stranger to controversy. (In February she allegedly spat on and pulled the hair of a journalist, who believes it was an act of revenge for his publication’s reporting on sexual assault charges against Maiwenn’s ex-husband, Luc Besson.)

The film revolves around the Versailles-set love affair between the titular Jeanne (Maïwenn), a peasant turned courtesan, with a by turns melancholic and romantic Louis. It proves, if nothing else, that Depp is still a fine actor. (Also, after living for years near Saint-Tropez, he speaks excellent French.)

While it might not offer the full-throttle comeback that “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” gave a similarly scandal-plagued Robert Downey Jr. after its Cannes premiere in 2005, it is definitely a step in that direction. The standing ovation “Jeanne du Barry” received was inevitable — it’s opening night, after all — but in the moments before the film began, when the theater had just gone dark and silent, someone shouted, “We love you, Johnny.”

That love may not carry over when the film hits theaters, but in Cannes there was nothing controversial about it.