Morally Complex Balzac Novel Materializes as French Cinematic Achievement



We’ve got plenty of currently released films to inform us that the ultra-wealthy are all too often ultra-terrible.  As it’s said, art reflects life.  Far before the telling likes of The Menu and Glass Onion (to name two very recent releases), Honoré de Balzac had an intuitive bead on the notion in his own medium.  That, though, ought to come as no surprise considering that Balzac is widely attributed as the father of literary realism, his subjects and stories derived from observation.  Between 1837 and 1843, he serialized Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions), a three-part tale of a young man’s aspirations in poetry becoming subverted amid his own social class aspirations.

The opera-going prim and proper high society, however, merely turn out to be the outer rung in the concentric circles of the true power hierarchy in Paris circa 1821, when Illusions perdues takes place.  The press, as incriminatingly depicted by Balzac, wields far more power than the wealthy herds of cultural snobs and elite consumers of The Arts.  Sure, they may hold the influence to destroy aspiring individuals who dare to infiltrate their ranks.  But how many of them are aware that they are in fact being played by organized tastemakers right in the room with them? 

In a press devoid of even the slightest shred of journalistic integrity, every piece published is bought and paid for.  On the literary review pages, the approval and disapproval of the superior talent of Amadaus-esque Raoul Nathan (Xavier Dolan) is entirely subject to cash.  In the theatre district, a handsome payout assures enthusiastic, floral-accompanied applause… or aggressive, rotten vegetable-pelting disapproval for the competition.  A no-nonsense balding man literally orchestrates the inherently fickle audience to the prescribed response.  If his plants burst into spirited cheers, the wealthy masses follow most Pavlovianly.  Likewise, if the plants boo, even turning on a previously favored talent, so will go the “cultured” crowd.

Lost Illusions does a splendid, simply splendid job of establishing the layers of influence in this altogether hollow façade of an enlightened world.  Maybe too good.  For some, this review may be burying the lede.  Balzac’s condemnation of the press is, on the whole, a greater takeaway than “rich people suck”- an angle that director Xavier Giannoli picks up and runs with. ZekeFilm contributor and filmmaker Paul Hibbard had this to say on Letterboxd about Lost Illusions

The only problem is its commentary on today will be lost. Some will read it as an indictment of a certain form of politicized media manipulation that must be diminished for real journalism. While the other side will mistake it as a takedown of all media, including legit media, empowering their need for their fake, conspiracy theory media to even the playing field”.

Count me in the former camp simply by virtue of contemporary politics.  Lost Illusion absolutely bears out how vapid and impressionable those who make their extreme wealth their identity can be and so often are.  We mustn’t forget, however, that the media scene of 1821 Paris as depicted by Balzac is quite different than the corporate global 24-hour news horse race of today.  Then again, when the central publication is called Le Satan and is run by a soulless hashish smoking profiteer (Étienne Lousteau, played by Vincent Lacoste), Giannoli is all but demanding our moral judgement… not unlike how the bald man demands response.  Lousteau not only insists that no journalist nor any publication is above bribery, payoffs, and handouts, that’s their primary goal.  Later, when a proper paper that declares a proper integrity finally launches, we’re told that the editor-in-chief would later be exposed as having been on the take.  

Whether or not I buried the lede, I have unquestionably buried the lead.  Which is an injustice in its own right, as Benjamin Voisin as our idealistic but deeply flawed protagonist Lucien de Rubempré absolutely, expertly carries this film.  It is Lucien’s journey- his moral undoing and reawakening (following his physical journey from Angoulême and Paris, initially a kid “just off the bus” in big city) that makes up the story of Lost Illusions, here consolidated (though still two and a half hours) into what appears to be the center third of the source material.  

Voisin’s youthful face expresses suppressed naïveté as he flails in high society as effectively as it communicates piousness later as Lucien gives himself over to the purely market-driven journalism of the time.  He sports the same era-appreciate topcoat as both a cringeworthy costume and as a confident uniform of his later assumed identity.  And all the while, the actor metes out glimpses of Lucien’s vulnerability, his longing to be doing things right, and to be doing right by his chosen art.  He knows that Nathan is a greater talent compared to himself, but can he bring himself to honestly admit that in print, particularly when it means leaving money on the table?  The struggle’s resolution is not as obvious as it may sound.  Here’s to a long and fruitful career on screen for Voisin.

Giannoli’s adaptation, despite its length, moves at a brisk clip, always radiating energy from one facet or another.  The edits hit so tightly that it’s virtually impossible to pause the Blu-ray during a lingering scene break, as there simply aren’t any.  As such, we whooshed through Lucien’s thwarted quest as he loves and, to varying degrees, loses well-heeled matron Marie-Louise-Anaïs de Bargeton (the always welcome Cécile de France) and the red-stockinged siren of the stage, Coralie (Salomé Dewaels) with notable aplomb.  Both actresses are excellent in their very different seductive roles, the former luring Lucien to Paris with false hopes only to be party to his impersonal dismissal from the affluent sphere; the latter revealing herself (quite frequently) as the unattainable yet fully attained lust object who turns out to have a soul as fragile as his.  

Now available on Blu-ray from Music Box Films, Lost Illusions is not to be dismissed by devotees of rich, global fare.  Unfortunately, bonus content is restricted to a pair of quick promotional pieces, one general in approach, the other more focused on Giannoli’s ornate realization of Balzac’s detailed world.  There’s far more to be said about the film on the disc proper, though the transfer, fresh from its recent theatrical run, is nicely sumptuous and the sound is appropriately striking.  In this most cinematic of cases, the ultra-wealth of Lost Illusions is anything but ultra-terrible.  Here we can be thankful for lavish resources properly allocated and talent rightly recognized, no payout necessary.