Lost Illusions

Lost Illusions

2022, NR, 149 min. Directed by Xavier Giannoli. Starring Benjamin Voisin, Vincent Lacoste, Xavier Dolan, Salomé Dewaels, Cécile de France, Gérard Depardieu, André Macron, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Jean-François Stévenin, Jeanne Balibar.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., July 8, 2022

Don’t let the early 19th-century France setting of this adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s serialized novel Illusions Perdues fool you into assuming Lost Illusions is just another stuffy period piece lacking in modern sensibility. The unscrupulous journalism practiced by a post-Napoleonic generation of Parisian newspapers in the film isn’t too different from the no-guardrails reportage of truly fake news across all media today. There’s a distinct whiff of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” here.

But rather than moralize the discomfiting echo, this multi-César-winning production chooses to unapologetically recount – with great gusto – how economic opportunity drove this liberal, anti-royalist segment of the Fourth Estate to bend the rules. It’s this lucrative pursuit of the almighty franc that corrupts Balzac’s idealistic country-mouse protagonist, Lucien de Rubempré (Voison, appropriately pretty), an aspiring but failed poet from the provinces who abandons his highbrow principles to become the French capital’s rock star critic for a hot second. The bildungsroman structure of Balzac’s lengthy, three-part novel, published from 1837 to 1843, dictates that the ambitious young Frenchman learn his lesson in the end. But what makes this focused condensation of the literary work so captivating (bravo, co-screenwriters Jacques Fieschi and Xavier Giannoli!) is the seductive way it celebrates the cultural zeitgeist. Yes, perhaps you should be appalled, not amused, when the newspaper office’s simian mascot dictates a thumbs-up or thumbs-down review of a new book merely by pointing one of his digits. Maybe the sly machinations of greed (bribery, blackmail, deceit, and hybrid variations thereof) that fuel Lucien’s wild financial success should elicit something sterner than a half-smile. There’s not much use resisting the exuberant attitude of this entertaining cynicism. In keeping with the omnipresent narrator’s cheeky observation about this heady time in 1820s Paris, “Money was the new royalty, and no one wanted to chop its head off.”

The production values in most costume dramas usually excel out of necessity, but there’s a dull sameness to many of those films’ glittering representations of le beau monde. The more earthy depictions of two Parisian demimondes in this film defy that truism; they’re so alive, they almost burst through the screen. First, there are the Galleries, a cacophonous and colorful alleyway where prostitutes and hucksters line up to openly hawk their wares, and then Crime Boulevard, a seedy Broadway of theatres performing blood-drenched dramas for the hoi polloi and privileged alike. The film peaks during a terrifically directed (Giannoli, again) and edited sequence taking place in the latter venue when Lucien’s happily amoral colleague Lousteau (Lacoste, who deservedly won a César) scrambles on opening night to find Singali (Stévenin), the most feared man on the Boulevard, before the curtain rises on a new play starring the shady journalist’s mistress. The reason for his backstage panic? Per the accepted custom of the day in the highly competitive field of live theatre, one of Lousteau’s rivals has paid Singali to orchestrate his claque of professional audience members to humiliate the players with boos and catcalls (and maybe a tomato or two), and the only way to avoid a disastrous debut is to shell out a higher fee to the provocateur in return for applause and a standing ovation. Maybe that was the way to ensure a glowing review two centuries ago, but in these more civilized times, Lost Illusions deserves this rave simply based on its commendable merits.

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Lost Illusions, Xavier Giannoli, Benjamin Voisin, Vincent Lacoste, Xavier Dolan, Salomé Dewaels, Cécile de France, Gérard Depardieu, André Macron, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Jean-François Stévenin, Jeanne Balibar

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