Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 1st, 2022
Lost Illusions (Xavier Giannoli, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.
A quick internet search to look up the plot of 19th-century French writer Honoré de Balzac’s Lost Illusions reveals significant differences with its new movie adaptation, from director Xavier Giannoli (Marguerite), who also co-wrote the screenplay. No matter (I haven’t read the source material, anyway), though Balzac fans might nevertheless want to steel themselves. The overall structure is the same and the theme, of innocence corrupted and ambitions thwarted, remains unchanged.
Benjamin Voisin (The Mad Women’s Ball) stars as Lucien Chardon, a young and penniless poet from Angoulême who benefits form the patronage of a local baroness, Louise de Bargeton (Cécile de France, The Young Lovers), with whom he also engaged in not-so-discreet affair. Though Lucien has grand plans for himself as an artist, he is also deeply attracted to the trappings of aristocracy, choosing to go by his mother’s last name—“de Rubempré”—and rejecting his father’s lowly origins. This will eventually prove his Achilles heel, but for now there are verses to be written and sex to be had.
Unfortunately, Louise’s husband tires of her indiscretion and confronts the upstart, forbidding him from seeing his wife. In response, Louise heads off to Paris with Lucien stowed in her carriage, grudgingly assisted by her friend and confidante, the Baron du Châtelet (André Marcon, Black Box), who clearly has designs on her, as well. Once in the capital, both Louise and Lucien discover that their provincial ways have not quite prepared them for life in the big city. At least she has money and friends, however, while Lucien has not much of anything. Once Louise decamps, he is left to fend for himself.
Which he does, by working his way into the good graces of Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste, My Days of Glory), the editor of a local muckraking newspaper. This is the post-Napoleonic era of royal restoration, when the monarchy has returned and is trying to wrest power back from a populace that still has a lot of egalitarian ideas. Journalists control public opinion, and Lucien soon finds himself among them, brilliant with his alternatingly scathing and positive reviews of books, theatrical productions, and even public figures.
Along the way, he meets an actress, Coralie (Salomé Dewaels, Working Girls), with whom he quickly falls in love, and she with him. Together they become a popular couple about town, at least in their milieu, though Lucien tends to ruffle feathers as he goes. He gains frenemies in the form of literary rival Nathan d’Anastazio (Xavier Dolan, Matthias & Maxime)—an actual nobleman, unlike Lucien—and his publisher Dauriat (Gérard Depardieu, Maigret), and that helps raise his profile. What he doesn’t realize is that some folks posing as friends may be pure enemies. Given his desire to have his mother’s name become legally his, he loses his way, heading down a path that may destroy all that he has achieved.
As a work of fiction, the film proves alternatingly moving and meandering. It’s hard to fully engage with the many different plot twists and characters, even if the French are masters of the costume drama. Far more interesting than Lucien, himself, is the notion of press outlets as arbiters of public opinion and how authoritarian systems seek to defang them. Had Lousteau been the protagonist, the narrative would have sharper bite. As it is, it entertains, though we see Lucien’s downfall coming from far away, telegraphed as it is from the start. What will Balzac aficionados think? I don’t know, but Lost Illusions is at the very least quite watchable, with excellent performances, and that’s no small thing.