Review: Lost Illusions

That Balzac guy sure was prescient. His 1843 novel Illusions perdues depicted a media world centered on fake news, in which the profits to be had by printing what the highest bidder had to offer for specific journalistic favors was just too tempting to pass up. Though Balzac is often described as a “realist,” he wasn’t averse to using broad dramatic license and inflating the worst qualities of French society in order to highlight the cynicism of the age. His method here is to contrast naive idealism with abject opportunism.

Xavier Giannolli has adapted Lost Illusions to the screen without much interpretation: Its main mode of exposition is voiceover narration that sounds as if it were lifted directly from the novel. The instrument is young poet Lucien Chardon (Benjamin Voisin), who lives in the sticks and conducts an affair with an older noblewoman, Louise de Bargeton (Cecile de France), who quickly tires of him as her social inferior after she repairs to Paris and he follows closely behind. While in the capital, Lucien tries to sell his creative writing to a publisher, Dauriat (Gerard Depardieu), at the insistence of his new mentor, Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste), who works for Dauriat writing reviews of books and plays on spec, meaning he is assigned what to say depending on who needs good—or, more importantly, bad—publicity. Dauriat is the film’s most potent caricature, a functionally illiterate “editor” who knows that only money talks (and writes). Lucien thus adopts a pen name and starts producing debilitating diatribes about, among others, a work by a royalist (read: conservative) named Nathan (Canadian film director Xavier Dolan), who is now positioned as his sworn enemy. 

Lucien eventually becomes a notorious critic whose pronouncements can sink or float a play. Balzac’s view of show business is particularly acid as even theater managers take big payoffs to make sure audiences boo or cheer according to who has more financial pull, regardless of the quality of the work on display. Carried away by his own deluded power to influence, Lucien falls in love with a young actress, Coralie (Salome Dawaels), and embarks on a mission to make her a star, grossly overestimating his ability to do so in such a toxic environment. As a result, his former flame, Louise, overcome with jealousy, connives with Nathan to realize Lucien’s downfall. Giannolli achieves a narrative completeness through carefully cultivated details that aptly explains how this sort of rank capitalism could thrive in such a milieu, but often the schematic nature of the production drains the story of whatever emotional resonance Balzac was so good at incorporating into his social studies. We know from the start, because Balzac and Giannolli tell us, that this is a tragedy, but by the end it comes across as more of an elaborate anecdote. 

In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

Lost Illusions home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Curiosa Films-Gaumont-France 3 Cinema-Gabriel Inc.-Umedia

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