‘Lost Illusions’ is a lavish period piece about the lure of fame, followers and fake news
Ah, to be critical! In this sarcastic media world, it’s reassuring that ‘Lost Illusions’, Honoré de Balzac’s great 19th century European realist novel, was hugely prescient in our current age of social media – and how reputations can be earned and lost, or bought and sold.
The lavish adaptation by Xavier Giannoli, which was nominated for 14 Césars (French Oscars) and won seven, is all about “ink, paper and the love of beauty”. The film traces the rise and 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 the influence (read: threat) of her husband forces Lucien to leave for Paris. It is in the city, where he is beside himself, that his life really begins.
Giannoli effortlessly guides the viewer through Parisian society and its actors with as much eloquence as the narrator tells the story of Lucien’s ambition gone awry. Lucien gets off on the wrong foot when he makes a bad impression at the theater with Louise and her illustrious relative, the Marquise d’Espard (Jeanne Baibar). He is also rude to Nathan d’Anastazio (filmmaker Xavier Dolan), a writer and dandy who quickly becomes Lucien’s enemy.
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Lucien’s initial failure in society leads him to meet two other influential lower-class people: Etienne Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste) a journalist who helps him find a job, and Coralie (Salomé Dewaels), a working-class actress who becomes Lucien’s lover.
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“Lost Illusions” shows how Lucien navigates this island world with arrogance and impudence. Voisin, who has the mother-of-pearl skin of which Balzac speaks, is perfectly cast in the role of the naive young poet who arouses pity when he is stupid and humiliated in the theater. And viewers will cringe every time Lucien thinks he has the upper hand, but is really being played for a fool. Even though the undesirable consequences of Lucien’s escapades are telegraphed, Giannoli still generates emotion with every setback. Lucien deserves most of his accolades, but he remains likeable as Voisin captures his carelessness as a wrestler and social climber.
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A key episode that takes place in the offices of Dauriat (Gérard Depardieu), a publisher, who asks Lousteau what he thinks of Nathan’s new book. Lousteau, who has not read it, does not prevent himself from expressing an opinion. And when Lucien is asked for his opinion, his Nathan trolling is akin to a war on Twitter, only the insults are pronounced face to face. Huzah! Lucien’s career as a critic was born — and it is lucrative. His ego is growing as exponentially as his wallet. (Alas, criticism doesn’t pay as well these days, especially when social media makes everyone a critic.)
One of the best sequences in the film shows how money rules everything. (“Greed begins when poverty ends,” Balzac writes, shrewdly, in his novel.) Giannoli ably illustrates how writers/critics are the intermediaries between artists and audiences, and everything and everything has its price. Journalists are paid to review a book or a show, and men like Singali (Jean-François Stévenin), sell “boos” or applause at the theater to the highest bidder. Bribes and corruption extend to advertisers who sell the public what they want (but don’t need), and of course politicians are also guilty of this scam. There’s even a discussion of “fake news” and how it benefits from denial. Surely an invented rivalry between author and critic is good for sales?
“Lost Illusions” amplifies its messages of conscience and integrity as Lucien leverages his newfound reputation to achieve what he most desires – to regain the title of his name. (He calls himself Lucien de Rubempré, after his mother’s name; he is actually Chardon, after his father’s name). But will Lucien sell his soul to the highest bidder? He achieved success writing satires and was invited by the Royalists (Lousteau’s rivals) to write smear campaigns against influential people to sway public opinion. Likewise, when given a review of Nathan’s new novel, Lucien feels compromised because it’s an amazing book and Lousteau wants a chop. What should a reviewer do?
Lucien’s professional mind may be clouded with doubt, but his ambivalence also extends to his personal relationships. He uses his power to help Coralie land a part in a revival of “Macbeth”, but as they become destitute, his performance and the play must be a hit. When Louise lets Lucien know through Nathan that she wants to see him, he wonders if her former lover plans to rekindle their affair. In a formidable scene, Louise and Coralie meet without Lucien knowing; it says a lot about their characters.
“Lost Illusions” keeps all that drama engrossing for its entire 150 minutes, which ramps up nimbly. Giannoli pauses briefly as Lucien’s disillusionment takes over and he can’t tell his allies from his foes, but viewers won’t need a dash. The film is so impeccably made – the photography, costumes and art direction are all fabulous – that only Lucien can’t see the “cold, inhuman smiles” of his detractors to know he’s blundered in his efforts to go forward.
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If Lousteau encouraged negativity towards this accomplished film, it would be easy to accuse Giannoli of having captured only the spirit, and not the letter, of the novel. A celebratory scene featuring Lucien being baptized and floating in a rarefied air of golden confetti like a rock star is the movie’s only over-the-top moment. The filmmaker also minimizes the amorous passions of the characters. The way Nathan looks at Lucien conveys a delicious, unspoken attraction that has more warmth than Lucien’s brief sweaty dates with Louise or Coralie.
But these are minor flaws in a film that is otherwise exceptional. “Lost Illusions” ends with a close-up of Lucien’s resigned face that reveals everything and maybe nothing. It would be appropriate to post on Instagram – if Lucien were to still have followers.
“Lost Illusions” hits theaters on June 10. Watch a trailer below, via YouTube.
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