Movie Review: ‘Lost Illusions’ – 19th Century French Corruption Creates Thrilling Entertainment

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By Erica Abeel

Winner of seven Césars, this biting portrait of the corrupt Parisian press of the mid-19th century, as well as the commodification of just about everything, speaks loudly of the internet age.

lost illusions, written and directed by Xavier Giannoli. Opening June 24 at Landmark’s Kendall Square Theater.

Benjamin Vosin in lost illusions. Photo: Roger Arpajou.

By adapting Balzac’s novel lost illusions on the screen, the French director Xavier Giannoli took up a bouquet of challenges. In principle, the works that make up the great works of Balzac Human Comedy are less suitable for the cinema. His monomaniacs, so irresistible to the page, risk turning into a caricature. Moreover, Balzac’s habitats are almost demonic, virtual “characters” in the novels – the sordid boarding house of Goriot — signifiers of economic and social status. This kind of visual sociology would get lost in translation to the screen.

And will this ambitious upstart story cross the Atlantic? To the French the name of Lucien de Rubempre, poet-protagonist of lost illusionswith Eugene de Rastignac from Goriotare the shortcuts of the poor young man who descends from the provinces to conquer Paris, a hero marching under the banner of the little Corsican who has become Emperor of France.

Finally, what can a filmmaker make of all these moralizing aphorisms in which Balzac was immersed?

That said, Lost makes exciting entertainment, not least because Giannoli brings forth oddly resonant themes today. Winner of seven Césars, this biting portrait of the corrupt Parisian press of the mid-19th century, as well as the commodification of just about everything, speaks loudly of the internet age.

Echoing the caffeinated rush of Balzac’s style, Lost wanders through the lavish salons of the day, the gilded opera house and the theaters frequented by the aristocracy – newly vindicated by the reigning Royalist government. The camera lingers in noisy dens where what passes for “news” is designed to reward the highest bidder. The fake news rampant today, anyone – the truly wrong, that is? Murdoch-style tabloids? The “Hedge Fund Vampire” Who Bleeds Newspapers Dry to Boost Bottom Lines? Modern media was already upon us in the 19th century with a commercialized press, boosted by the newly invented printing press and shooting for the greatest profit. “Money was the new royalty, and no one wanted to chop off its head,” the narrator says in voiceover.

Lucien (Benjamin Voisin from François Ozon’s Summer 85) is first seen working in his family’s print shop in the province of Angoulême (ink would become a recurring visual motif throughout the film). His real name is Bardon but he prefers de Rubempre, from his aristocratic mother, since the particle conferred status – and probably still does. (Remember, our author became Honoré of Balzac). Blond and handsome, with a sensual and hungry mouth, Lucien harbors literary ambitions and is impatient to leave home for greater things. He is romantically involved with local salonista Louise de Bargeton (Cécile de France, blunt and almost unrecognizable) who admires his flowery poetry. After her husband discovers their affair, the couple flees to Paris.

Lucien hopes to rise thanks to his literary talent. His provincial awkwardness, comically puffy new headdress, and other missteps quickly alienate Louise and her haughty cousin, the Marquise d’Espard (a serpentine Jeanne Balibar). We also sense that the Marquise is angry that Lucien does not pay court to her. While waiting for the tables, he hooks up with publisher Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste, terrific), a cynical failed playwright. Lucien starts writing articles for Lousteau’s newspaper, a rag that traffics in scandals and cheerfully resells criticism for money. (that it is a left-handed the rag is daunting, but French politics is notoriously Byzantine.) “My job is to enrich the shareholders of the newspaper and, along the way, reap it,” Lousteau told Lucien.

The press room includes a pet monkey who is tricked into “selecting” which book to review. Also wading through this swamp, an illiterate grocer turned press lord played by Gérard Depardieu, who with each film seems to expand like an accordion. He rejects Lucien’s poetry: “I only publish famous authors. No risk that way. There is also Nathan (Xavier Dolan, the famous director) a gifted screenwriter who resists the sale, against Lucien. In Giannoli’s account, these journalists are simply gangsters with pens launching careers and fighting with inkwells.

A scene with Salomé Dewaels in lost illusions. Photo: Roger Arpajou.

Lucien shows himself to be good at the game and his caustic and dishonest criticisms make him a star. Along the way, he falls in love with Coralie (Salomé Dewaels), a kept and Boulevard actress who aspires to embody the tragic heroine Bérénice (referring to Racine’s play, known to all French schoolchildren). Coralie adores Lucien and believes in his (untapped) talent. Their romance forms an oasis of happiness and genuine feelings in a fragile and venal milieu, but their lavish lifestyle and Lucien’s dandified ways lead to a whirlwind of debt. When Lucien alienates a royal patron ready to ennoble him, he is ready for the downfall. As Balzac said, “for all ambitious men their life falls apart unless they are born rich”.

Overall, the actors are superb. Benjamin Voisin, beautiful to look at, takes a persuasive journey from rosy innocent to amoral crook. As editor Lousteau, Vincent Lacoste is the film’s scene-stealer, playing with the panache of a classically trained actor. Even his cunning look and his upturned lip evoke Honoré Daumier’s lithographs. In another casting stunt, Salomé Dewaels as Coralie conjures up Renoir’s chubby nudes.

Lost weaves intriguing details from the period, such as the elaborate “slaps” in theaters paid to support or trash an actress. The film highlights Balzac’s obsession with money, including footage of bills of sale with the exact amounts noted. The narrator observes: “You could buy anything, boos, whistles, bravos, rotten tomatoes… At the top of the pyramid, bankers, financiers: Laffite, Rothschild, Nucingen. The voiceovers breathe rancid humour: “Real estate speculation had spread to cemeteries. Even eternal rest has a price.

at times Lost feels like a volley between the old school and the current moment. The theme of the sale is a relic, right? But consider that the Cannes Film Festival itself struggles to preserve its mission to present cinema as art, while navigating a host of competing and less exalted forms of entertainment, wolf at the door. In one respect, Lost indeed feels dated. The exposure of corruption no longer alarms, it is a given. In 1837, when Balzac wrote this masterpiece, his readers would probably have been shocked.


Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and culture critic and former professor at CUNY. Her 2016 novel wild girlsabout three rebellious women from the 50s, was a Oprah Magazine take. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other important sites and national publications. Former dancer, when she is not writing, she is in Pilates class or at the barre. Her new novel, The Commune, was recently published by Adelaide Books.

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