The setting is France in the early 19th century. Young Lucien Chardon, a classic ink-stained wretch addicted to writing poetry and working in printers’ workshops, departs his provincial hometown of Angoulême for Paris, taking care to adopt his mother’s aristocratic surname of de Rubempré before he leaves. Lucien (played by Benjamin Voisin) is eager to pursue his love of literature on a larger stage, but this starry-eyed orphan with the delicate features will need every advantage he can muster to make his way in the sophisticated, highly competitive capital.
Paris lives up to its reputation with a vengeance in Lost Illusions, director Xavier Giannoli’s adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1837-1843 serial novel Illusions perdues. The story of a naïve youth struggling to carve out a career in a big city is nothing new. What makes the Balzac-Giannoli scenario so fascinating is its detailed portrait of Parisian social and literary life during the Bourbon Restoration—an era when the fictions of Victor Hugo, Stendhal and Balzac set the pace for a romanticism soaked in gossip and outrage. In Lost Illusions we visit the age of provocateur journalists, unscrupulous publishers, graft and blackmail raised to a high art, sardonic show business idols and poule de luxe strumpets elevated to stardom by their raucous fans. In other words, a time curiously reminiscent of our own.
In his social-climbing efforts, Lucien makes the acquaintance of mavericks and lowlifes in addition to the insufferable swells. His original patron, bored socialite Louise de Bargeton (Cécile de France), loses interest in him when tongues begin to wag. Lucien eventually finds someone more his type, Coralie (Salomé Dewaels), baby-faced chorine of the red stockings, an up-and-coming comedienne (read: part-time prostitute). Half the people he meets are fashionable snobs who chortle behind his back about his phony upper-class name change. The other half are colorful riff-raff who care about nothing but free drinks. (Preferred cocktail-hour combo: hashish and champagne.)
Lucien eventually finds his true métier in the scandal sheets, where poison-pen vultures like Nathan d’Anastazio (Xavier Dolan) and the publishers Dauriat (Gérard Depardieu, fatter than ever) and Finot (Louis-Do Lencquesaing) crank out penny-dreadful puff pieces and character assassination for eager readers. Office high-jinks include having a pet monkey choose which play or novel is to be reviewed. All in all, a great time to be a critic. Financiers and impresarios are totally at the mercy of the reviewers, and of tastemaker-for-hire Singali (Jean-François Stévenin), with his claque of paid boo-birds. First-nighters at the immensely popular stage houses—Funambules, Renaissance, Ambigue-Comique and others along the “Boulevard du Crime”—have their choice of “influencers.” Even though the “likes” have to be delivered in person, it is a time very much like the present. All we have to do is substitute “press” for “internet,” “plays” for “social media” and “carrier pigeon” for “laptop.”
Today’s costumed movie spectacles are mostly self-congratulatory creampuff romances with very little on their minds other than the most toothless social commentary. Balzac was different. His morally observant novels described the “human comedy” with a zest and style that earned him a tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery, and later influenced everyone from Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust to Friedrich Engels, Henry James and François Truffaut. Who else could have described Lucien’s letters as “a messy drawer of sentiments”?
Director/co-scenarist Giannoli—with writers Jacques Fieschi and Yves Stavrides—obviously takes great delight in Balzac’s prose and the spirit of his times. Actor Voisin is an ideal choice for a sensitive soul turned cynical news hack, and the film’s roster of character players only adds to the general ironic merriment. The authentic-looking décor and settings are also spectacular in the extreme. After sitting through a seemingly endless parade of listless Downton Abbey-style costumed dramas, it’s a relief to observe the incisive wit of Lost Illusions. Balzac’s lively commentary has meaning for 21st-century audiences after all.