By Jim Gilles
Certainly worth seeing is Xavier Giannoli’s new film – Lost Illusions, an adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s French Restoration-era novel originally published in the 1830s. Xavier Giannoli’s sumptuous adaptation, which was nominated for 14 César Awards (French Oscars) and won seven, is, all about, “ink, paper, and the love of beauty.” The film charts the rise and subsequent fall of Lucien (Benjamin Voisin), a 20-year-old poet from Angoulême. He writes poems for Louise de Bargeton (Cécile de France), whom he loves, but her husband’s influence and impending threats force Lucien to leave for Paris. It is in the city, where he is out of his depths, that his life truly begins. Lost Illusions was first seen in Los Angeles at the COLCOA French Film Festival in November 2021 and is currently playing at several Laemmle theatres in Los Angeles.
Lost Illusions exposes the roots of journalistic corruption, finding it in the beau monde’s ruthlessness and Lucien’s ambition. He is instructed, “A new industry was born. Editorial press became commercial press . . . a shop that sold the public what it wanted to hear. One no longer enlightened. One flattered opinion. Or created it.” Giannoli’s narrator lays out press performance in Balzacian details that sound absolutely contemporary: “News, debate, and ideas had become goods to palm off on subscribers. Journalists had become retailers of phrases, wheelers and dealers of words, brokers between artists and the public. Lucien wrote with the fury of revenge. Cruel, witty articles became his trademark.” We even learn the roots of fake news: “There was a specific term for any false information – a ‘canard,’ or duck. Maybe because fake sensational news was like a wild duck chase.” For this fake-news era, when one longs for a writer with principled courage rather than mere audacity, Giannoli grounds these modern observations in what Balzac called La Comédie Humaine. The film’s immediacy suggests a neoclassical version of Le Gai Savoir, Godard’s analysis of media language.
In Lost Illusions, Balzac examined exactly that kind of arrogant moral stupidity, especially the stupidity of corrupted information. Godard and Truffaut knew this; their films internalized Balzac’s wisdom. Giannoli proves worthy when, during the blistering social panorama equating journalistic misbehavior to prostitutes, theater, and the banking world, his roving camera rises to a theater ceiling to reveal a fresco of puppets pulled on strings – the peak of the director’s technique.
V.S. Pritchett heralded Balzac as “an indefatigable observer of a greedy age.” That seems prophetic when Lousteau teaches Lucien, “My job is to make newspaper shareholders rich. And along the way rake it in.” We are disabused of contemporary journalism’s sanctimony. Giannoli uses art against dishonest journalism, the main weapon in today’s politicized class war. No documentary could be more bracing. That makes Lost Illusionsthe best newspaper movie since Citizen Kane.
Giannoli effortlessly guides the viewer through Parisian society and its players as eloquently as the narrator recounts Lucien’s story of ambition gone wrong. Lucien gets off on the wrong foot when makes a bad impression at the theater with Louise de Bargeton and her prominent relation, the Marquise d’Espard (Jeanne Baibar). He is also rude to Nathan d’Anastazio (the filmmaker and actor Xavier Dolan), a writer and dandy who soon becomes Lucien’s frenemy.
A naïve Lucien Chardon (Benjamin Voisin), newly arrived in Paris from the provinces, visits the city’s most influential publisher, Dauriat (Gérard Depardieu), hoping to sell his manuscript of juvenilia.
Few scenes illustrate this with more cynical glee than the one in which a naïve Lucien Chardon (Benjamin Voisin), newly arrived in Paris from the provinces, visits the city’s most influential publisher, Dauriat (Gérard Depardieu), hoping to sell his manuscript of juven
Lucien’s new mentor, Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste), assistant editor for a liberal journal called Le Satan, has brought him to this office sandwiched between brothels and gambling dens for a different purpose. He intends to show Lucien the real machinery underlying the supposedly pure arena of literature. Dauriat, a former grocer, can neither read nor write. He publishes solely on the basis of what will sell. Writers don’t become known through the strength of their writing but by cultivating famous friends or, better yet, famous enemies. To fabricate controversy, he bribes critics from competing journals to write conflicting reviews.
Dauriat has paid Lousteau to write favorably of a new book by Nathan (Xavier Dolan), a royalist dandy. Lousteau claims that to write a review, it’s better not to have read the book, and sets Lucien up for an ad hoc savaging of Nathan’s work. Lucien calls it “a curious sum of nothingness,” provoking laughter and applause from the room, even as he accidentally describes himself, his words, and his future career as a journalist.
Ambitious, desperate, entranced by the promise of wealth and influence, Lucien rapidly takes to his lucrative job at Le Satan, writing under his maternal patronymic of de Rubempré, indicative of his pretensions to nobility. On the theater beat, where even applause and boos are bought and sold (it’s hard not to see the spectacle of the theater as an analog to cinema), he falls for a red-stockinged actress, Coralie (Salomé Dawaels), and decides to use his pen to elevate her to stardom. This sparks the jealousy of his former lover in the provinces, Louise de Bargeton (Cécile de France), even though she’s abandoned him for being her social inferior, and she decides to work with Nathan in orchestrating Lucien’s downfall.
Unlike so many costume dramas, Lost Illusions doesn’t merely wrap up the politics of our present-day world in gauzy nostalgia. After all, its themes are those of Balzac, a royalist so committed to realism that he ended up sabotaging his own ideals. Disillusionment, all too obviously, is the order of the day, and Giannoli sacrifices the cinematic spectacle of Lost Illusions on the pedestal of Balzac’s message, all the timelier for its timelessness. Fake news is not some 21st-century aberration. Even during the Restoration-era of Giannoli’s adaptation, when capitalism was still getting off the ground, journalism served as a vehicle for empty spectacle, a sleight of hand distracting from the accumulation of wealth and power. In one form or another, spectacle has always existed, even if capitalism has proliferated its forms and sent them into overdrive.
One of the film’s best sequences shows how money drives everything. (“Avarice begins when poverty ends,” writes Balzac, shrewdly, in his novel.) Giannoli deftly illustrates how writers/critics are the brokers between the artists and public, and everyone and everything has its price. The newspapermen are paid to review a book or a show, and men like Singali (Jean-François Stévenin), sells “boos” or applause at the theater to the highest bidder. The bribery and corruption extend to advertisers who sell the public what it wants (but doesn’t need), and of course, politicians are guilty of this chicanery as well. There is even a discussion of “Fake News,” and how it benefits from denial. Surely, a trumped-up rivalry between author and critic is good for sales?
Lost Illusions amplifies its messages about conscience and integrity as Lucien leverages his newly minted reputation to gain the thing that he most desires – to regain the title of his name. (He goes by Lucien de Rubempré, his mother’s name; he is really Chardon, after his father). But will Lucien sell his soul to the highest bidder? He gains success writing satires and is asked by the Royalists (Lousteau’s rivals) to pen anonymous smear campaigns against influential folks to sway public opinion. Likewise, when he is assigned a review of Nathan’s new novel, Lucien feels compromised because it is an astonishing book and Lousteau wants a hatchet piece. What is a critic to do?
Lost Illusions uncovers a little secret about cynicism: It’s loads of fun. Lucien and his newspaper bad boys love to print hit pieces and fake news. They revel in the rigged system they’ve created and believe they run, chortling over ruined careers, slandered reputations, and bought cheers (or boos) on opening nights at the theater. They party, show off, and flaunt their roles as outsiders while guzzling the best champagne. Lucien moves in a social circle of high-class actress-prostitutes and their journalist lovers: Soon he becomes the lover of Coralie. As a literary journalist he prostitutes his talent. But he still harbors the ambition of belonging to high society and longs to assume by royal warrant the surname and coat of arms of the de Rubemprés.
Lucien’s professional mind may be clouded by doubt, but his ambivalence extends to his personal relationships as well. He uses his power to help Coralie secure a part in a revival of Racine’s Bérénice, but as they become destitute, her performance and the play must be a success. When Louise sends word through Nathan to Lucien that she wants to see him, he wonders if his former lover plans to rekindle their affair. In a terrific scene, Louise and Coralie meet without Lucien’s knowledge; it reveals much about their characters. In many ways, Coralie is the Angelic figure in Balzac’s novel and, despite her struggle with tuberculosis, she remains a most supportive lover and partner for Lucien.
Confident of his own good looks and wit, Lucien has not one but two petty, slightly puffy pretty boys alternately competing with him and egging him on to attack rivals in print, played by pouting Vincent Lacoste and magnetic Xavier Dolan. (Male rivalry is a strong theme here, particularly between Lucien and older men, who slap him, threaten him, and douse him with black ink. Oh, and one of them is Gérard Depardieu, in a small but spiteful role). The only question is which of the frenemies will betray him first, and that’s just one of many comeuppances on the way. Lucien’s appetites and temptations grow, he becomes unwisely involved in politics, and we wait for the overreach, double cross, and downfall we feel is coming.
A celebratory scene featuring Lucien being baptized and floating along in a rarified air of gold confetti like a rock star is the film’s sole over-the-top moment. The filmmaker also downplays the romantic passions of the characters. The way Nathan eyes Lucien conveys a delicious, unspoken attraction that has more heat in it than Lucien’s brief, sweaty trysts with either Louise or Coralie. But the unspoken homosexual attraction never manifests itself.
Lost Illusions makes all this drama captivating for its entire 150 minutes. Giannoli pauses briefly as Lucien’s disillusionment takes over and he cannot tell his allies from his enemies. The film is so impeccably made, with great attention to the cinematography, costumes, and art direction. Only Lucien cannot see the “cold, inhumane smiles” of his detractors to know he has blundered in his efforts to get ahead.
Lost Illusions is fast-paced and narrated with voice-over (a technique currently unpopular in filmmaking), but it helps to guide the viewer through the complexities of the story. Lead actor Voisin, star of François Ozon’s Summer of 85 (2020), adeptly inhabits a character who faces the world with opportunism but is also capable of love and sincerity. The film ends on a very bleak note, with the scene of a cadaver being dumped into a pauper’s grave in the rain. After Coralie’s death from consumption, he returns in disgrace to Angoulême. The final scene of the film has Lucien wading in a lake near his original town in rural France. This was not actually the end of Balzac’s 3-volume novel series of Lost Illusions, but rather the end of the second part. It seems an appropriate place to end the story, as Balzac’s third installation takes off in another direction with Lucien.
In writing Lost Illusions, Balzac denounced journalism, presenting it as the most pernicious form of intellectual prostitution. Throughout the book, the literary industry is compared to the fashion industry, for instance by using identical terms: “plume” describes a writing utensil and an ornament for hats; “tournure” and “style” are forms of writing and dressing; “boutiques” sell books and clothing. These linguistic doubles unveil the business interest in journalism, which, like fashion, seeks novelty and superficial appeal. Balzac shows us that journalistic integrity has never been the goal of newspapers or magazines in our society of print. As we contemplate our media-saturated world today of “fake news” and tabloid journalism, in print and online, Balzac’s Lost Illusions has an important message for all of us.