Everything is taxed, everything is sold, everything is manufactured, even success.
Great novels are notoriously hard to make into great movies, but directors keep trying. There have been plenty of notable disasters, such as Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) or Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012), which showed an understanding of the respective books that would have earned the filmmakers an ‘F’ in a literary studies class.
The best adaptations are usually based on short stories rather than those “baggy monsters” of the 19th century, to reprise Henry James’s memorable term. Of all those 19th century masters, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was one of the baggiest. An astonishingly productive author, Balzac set out to create a sweeping panorama of the world around him. His comédie humaine, which includes most of his novels and tales, is one of the towering achievements of world literature. Among these books there are a number of indisputable masterpieces, notably The Wild Ass’s Skin (1831), Eugénie Grandet (1833), Père Goriot (1835), The Black Sheep (1842) and A Harlot High and Low (1838-47).
Lost Illusions (1837-43) ranks very high in the Balzac pantheon. A dense, sprawling tale of a young man trying to make his way in the literary minefield of Paris, the book is exhausting and inspiring by turns, packed with cynical wisdom and philosophical asides. It seems a forbidding prospect for a film adaptation, but French director, Xavier Giannoli, has made a remarkable job of it. He owes some of his success to the expedient of trimming the first and third installments of a three-part story, judging correctly that the large, central section was the place to strike gold.
There are obvious parts of the book that can be eliminated right away, such as a five-page description of various types of paper and how they are made. Neither is it possible to reproduce Balzac’s aphorisms, sprinkled so liberally throughout the novel. The only option is to strip away the asides and literary devices, and present Lost Illusions as a rollicking good story.
We begin in Angoulême, a town in the south-west, mid-way between Bordeaux and Limoges. The protagonist, Lucien Chardon (an impressive Benjamin Voisin), is an aspiring poet, whose mother was born into the nobility but married a commoner. It’s Lucien’s deepest wish to reclaim the maternal name of De Rubempré, which will open doors for his future career. Much of the plot hangs on questions of name and reputation, which were of crucial importance in France in 1821, with the Bourbons on the throne and memories of Napoleon still fresh.
Lucien finds a patron in Madame de Bargeton (Cécile de France), a bored aristocrat who rules over a provincial literary salon. Seduced by his good looks and talent, Madame de Bargeton will help Lucien get to Paris, but distances herself when she realises the association might harm her reputation with the beau monde. Left to his own devices, battling poverty, Lucien discovers a world of ruthless social stratification and a literary scene that is savage, cynical and for sale to the highest bidder.
Through a mixture of luck and desperation, Lucien befriends Etienne Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste), a journalist on one of the local scandal sheets, and begins to write reviews to order – praising or damning, regardless of a work’s merits. He discovers a talent for this kind of commentary, and becomes a minor celebrity. In Balzac’s words, “avarice begins where poverty ends”. A modicum of fame brings money in the form of the kickbacks and bribes upon which the entire journalistic fraternity subsists. Lucien takes up with Coralie (Salomé Dewaels), an aspiring actress, although at first he is obliged to share her with a wealthy middle-aged businessman who pays for her lifestyle.
In this world, all professions seem to be forms of prostitution. Led by his friends through the maze the Parisian press, Lucien finds that everything and everyone is for sale. “Ambition,” writes Balzac, “puts an end to natural feeling.” As he enters more throughly into a milieu that the novel describes as a bottomless pit and an inferno, the monarchists with whom Madame de Bargeton is allied, put aside their previous scorn for this upstart and begin to cultivate his acquaintance. Watching doors opening in front of him, Lucien imagines himself a master tactician, but his new gloss of Parisian sophistication cannot protect him from the hardened cynics who have been playing this game for their entire lives.
This fabulous, multilayered story details a talented ingénue’s rise and fall in all its tragic inevitabiity. We are picked up and swept along, as we watch Lucien plunging ever deeper into the journalistic quagmire, tasting the ephemeral thrill of being the toast of Paris before his dreams and ambitions come unstuck. By saying this I’m not giving away anything that isn’t already stated in the early part of the movie.
Lost Illusions is a brilliant period piece – a visually sumptuous reconstruction of Paris in the 1820s, in all its splendour and squalor. Nobody, however, could watch this film and not be conscious of the story’s connections to the present. Lucien and his comrades are the original exponents of fake news – boosting or destroying writers’ reputations for their own benefit. Where dire suggestion doesn’t succeed there’s simple blackmail. They have become adept in writing denunciations that call for strident defences, which they are also willing to supply. The journos savour the knowledge that authors, booksellers, entrepreneurs and politicians are beholden to them for whatever popularity or favour they enjoy. But it’s a cut-throat profession in which friend can rapidly become foe, where money is quickly gained and even more quickly spent.
For Balzac Lost Illusions was a way of taking revenge on his critics by exposing their methods in public. For us, Lucien and his friends look like the Fox News of their day, peddling lies and propaganda as informed opinion. They are aware that their readership relishes the attacks, the scandal, the shafts of cruel wit, and are indifferent to the damage they may be doing. Does this sound familiar?
If Lucien has an abiding weakness besides his inexperience, it’s his need to cling to the high-minded ideals he brought with him from the provinces. He believes in great literature and men of genius, even as he churns out destructive reviews of their work. It’s his secret stash, the core of idealism tucked away at the back of his mind. One day, he believes, he’ll be able to drop the journalistic antics and create a book for the ages. It’s the most dogged of all the illusions he has to shed – the illusion that outstanding talent can triumph over a corrupt and decadent society. Even today, despite all evidence to the contrary, it’s an illusion no writer can willingly surrender.
Directed by Xavier Giannoli
Written by Jacques Fieschi, Xavier Giannoli, Yves Stravrides, after a novel by Honoré de Balzac
Starring: Benjamin Voisin, Cécile de France, Vincent Lacoste, Xavier Dolan, Salomé Dewaels, Jeanne Balibar, André Marcon, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Gérard Depardieu, Jean-François Stévenin, Candice Buchot
France/Belgium, rated M, 149 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 2 July, 2022