In the hectic world of lost illusions, corruption reigns supreme. Cities are cesspools of crime and debauchery. Fake news circulates like a virus, destroying lives and eroding the fragile democratic state. The high cost of living forces everyone to scramble for their daily bread, sacrificing their remaining ideals just to survive. Nothing is free, and everything and everyone has a price.
No, it’s not a movie about the state of things in 2022, but rather an adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 19th-century novel that’s just as relevant now as it was then. This is due, of course, to the genius of Balzac, but also to director Xavier Giannoli, who made one of the best films of the year by infusing an urgency into what could have been a dreary, stuffy affair. This film movesand unlike most photos of bloated costumes, it is concerned with chronicling the gradual rotting of men and women under period make-up and fancy clothing.
The rise and fall of a hero
lost illusions begins in the French provincial town of Angoulême, where Lucien Chardon works as a lowly assistant in a printing press. Gifted in writing poetry and charming ladies, he quickly won over the wealthier and upper-class bride Madame Louise de Bargeton. Soon, they flee together to Paris in the vain hope of continuing their love story away from disapproving eyes.
They are spectacularly wrong. Parisian society is more rigid and unforgiving and, as seen in a masterful sequence set at the Paris Opera, a misplaced handkerchief or friendly wave could spell disaster for anyone wishing to be accepted into high society. As Madame reluctantly chooses the comfort of her class over love, Lucien is rejected; broke, desperate and alone.
He soon meets Etienne Lousteau, a cynical journalist who takes a liking to Lucien and shows him the ins and outs of the newspaper industry, which is just beginning to thrive in France under new laws that encourage freedom of the press. These freedoms are exploited by Etienne and his peers, who use the power of the press to get what they want: money, women, power and above all influence. Untitled, penniless and good at writing quickly and mischievously, Lucien quickly becomes a figurehead in this toxic world and seeks to regain what he thinks is his rightful place alongside Madame de Bargeton in high society.
A vibrant past, linked to the present
There’s so much more to the film: dirty politicians, pretty prostitutes, two doomed love affairs, three nasty rivalries, a handful of shopping montages that would make Sofia Coppola blush, several pineapple dishes ( it’s a running gag throughout the picture), and even a pet monkey. But one of the main pleasures of the film is discovering this lost world that Giannoli so skillfully created. No other film in recent memory has succeeded in recreating a precise time and place in the distant past: Paris in the 1820s. Yet the film is not strangled by its sets or its costumes; instead, they help shape a detailed portrait of a past society that has more parallels to 2022 than you might think.
That’s because Giannoli isn’t just interested in doing a respectable adaptation of a routine costume drama. It situates anger and breathlessness in Balzac’s work, and makes it timeless. In a sequence of bravery, Giannoli lays out the rules of Lucien’s new profession, and how receiving a simple bribe for posting a good (or bad) review of a book he hasn’t read fuels a corrupt ecosystem that involves not only the press but also the artists who create them, the distributors who release them, the marketers who exploit them and the politicians who sponsor them. What Giannoli shows, without the fuss, is that this ecosystem is not specific to Lucien’s universe; it’s also how our system is set up. Through the tragic rise and fall of Lucien, Giannoli draws parallels to the present, when fake news is used to decimate opponents and everyone seems ready to be bought off by the highest bidder.
A sumptuous box
Although management is the most important element of lost illusions, that’s not the only thing that makes the film great. The acting is uniformly excellent, with everyone having fun either being righteous or playing the villain. As Lucien, Benjamin Voisin delivers on the charismatic promise he showed in the 2020s Summer 85. Naive but cunning, Lucien de Voisin is an innocent devoured by the wolves he desperately wants to join. Friend turned enemy of Lucien, Étienne, Vincent Lacoste has an oily charm that makes you understand why Lucien falls under his spell. As Lucien’s two great loves, Cécile de France (as Madame de Bargeton) and Salomé Dewaels (as Coralie) lend depth and pathos to their Madonna and Putain archetypes. Best of all is Xavier Dolan’s Nathan, whose brooding, mysterious presence isn’t fully realized until the film’s devastating climax.
All of these actors embody a world convincingly recreated by the talented set designers, costumers and make-up artists, all of whom bring the Bourbon Restoration in France to life 200 years ago and make it vital and lived. Christophe Beaucarne’s cinematography frames everything with equal interest and precision, from the beautiful French provincial countryside to the dirty, rat-infested streets of Paris. The end result is a film that eschews the look and feel of the traditional costume image like a pretty postcard. It’s the story that matters here, and the world-building is there to serve Lucien’s tragic story of ambition and hubris.
lost illusions clocks in at a hefty 141 minutes, but not a minute is wasted. Viewers who may be put off by the length and subject matter can rest assured that the film is as funny, sexy, and entertaining as any movie set today. That it also has a pointed commentary on the roles of media and politics in society, both high and low, is what makes the film so memorable and, ultimately, moving. What happened then is still happening now, only with fewer powdered wigs and monkeys.
lost illusions is currently playing in theaters.