The temptations and corruptions of journalism, then and now
The French production of Honore de Balzac’s ‘Lost Illusions,’ which released in Europe in 2021 but is just now finding its way into the more rarified cinematic districts in the U.S.A., is one of the best movie adaptations of a classic novel ever. It rivals Scorsese’s ‘The Age of Innocence,’ the Emma Thompson-starring ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ and the Merchant Ivory ‘A Room With A View.’
LOST ILLUSIONS ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Xavier Giannoli
Written by: Jacques Fieschi, Xavier Giannoli, Yves Stavrides
Starring: Benjamin Voisin, Cécile de France, Vincent Lacoste, Xavier Dolan, Salomé Dewaels
Running time: 149 mins
But Lost Illusions differs from the latter two in that, though it has a satirical impulse, it’s not a light romantic comedy. And though, like ‘The Age of Innocence,’ it features a doomed romance (actually, two doomed romances), its major purpose is to mock, even disdain, the political, journalistic, and artistic mores of its day. There’s never been another novel that cuts so savagely into the profession of journalism than Lost Illusions. This movie realizes Balzac’s vision perfectly, and makes it perfectly relevant to our world today.
Our hero is Lucien de Rubempré, a lapsed young aristocrat who works with his sister and her husband in a rural French print shop. Lucien is a beautiful young man, and Benjamin Voisin plays him beautifully. He has a poetic soul, gazing fondly across fields and lakes, writing verse inspired by his semi-secret lover, Madame de Bargeton, a bored aristocrat who is both horny for but also a huge believer in her young genius.
Lucien follows the Madame to Paris, where society immediately rejects him and tells her the shtupping must stop. Lost Illusions really picks up steam and distinguishes itself from the classic-novel pack when Lucien runs into Lousteau, a sleazy hashish-smoking journalist, who inducts Lucien into the Satanic temptations and infinite corruptions of the press.
Balzac set Lost Illusions in the 1830s and 1840s, a generally anodyne time in French history, post-Revolution, post Reign of Terror, and post-Napoleon. The elite has begun to restore itself to prominence. Yet the Revolution and Bonaparte had their effects on society, creating, among other things, a vast literary and artistic underclass that lives a life of near-perfect decadence and corruption. Lousteau works for a cheap newspaper unsubtly called ‘Le Satan,’ which makes most of its hay by taking bribes from publishers and theater owners in exchange for positive notices.
As the editor explains to Lucien, the point is not to write something true or accurate or important, it’s to create controversy. The controversy sells books and tickets, and then everyone profits, and everyone is happy. Our naive young poet falls pretty to all that Paris has to offer, hooking up with a sweet and noble but spendthrifty “Boulevard” actress, doing drugs, and writing scathing articles that make him the enemy and envy of his little sub-society.
Director Xavier Giannoli handles all of this efficiently, and not prudishly. This is a French film after all, and there are a ton of R-rated sex scenes, featuring full frontal nudity of both genders. Our sympathies veer back and forth between the upper crush, which Lucien seeks to rejoin, and the lower depths, which seem fun but also evil. Vincent Lacoste is terrific as Lousteau, and Salomé Dewaels is quite good as Coralie, Lucien’s actress lover, protector, and eventual downfall. French law requires Gérard Depardieu to appear in every movie, and he brilliantly shows up here as Dauriat, a bloated and ruthless publisher who nonetheless has good taste.
If the movie has a flaw, it’s over-narration, in the voice of its flattest and least-interesting character, a bourgeois novelist named Nathan. The narration comes in handy when Nathan is explaining a larger socio-political context that we might not otherwise understand, but sometimes it feels like he’s just telling us what we’re already seeing. There’s no real reason for Lost Illusions to show its literary roots so blatantly.
But this movie is especially good because it feels relevant. Those of us who’ve trafficked in the lower quarters of the media circus, as I have for 30 years, can find something relatable. Basically, Lucien goes to work for his society’s equivalent of Gawker. That evil media company may not have taken direct payola, but they definitely profited from half-truths and gossip and career destruction, turning writers, who may have started with the most hopeful artistic intentions, into famous and fearsome monsters in New York circles and beyond. There’s a reason why Gawker writers always talked about ‘Lost Illusions’ as one of their favorite books. They knew. Anyone who plays these cards for a life, myself included, knows. Lucien is better-looking, and probably has more sex, but he’s basically one of us.
Though that Gawker era is now long-gone, much like the era of Lost Illusions, people are still playing its little games on Twitter, and even in the pages of some of our most venerable newspapers. Why write a book of poetry that will struggle to find 300 readers when you can get hundreds of thousands of retweets for some pithy piece of half-slander that you cook up overnight? As long as hacks exist, there will be Lost Illusions.
The correlations aren’t exact, but you’d have to be pretty thick to not see that Giannoli is drawing connections from one basically useless historical period to another. All us hacks can pretend that we’re involved in some great drama, but we’re really just toys in service of some larger agenda that we can’t even begin to understand. Lost Illusions is a warning about that, and a reminder, and also just a damn entertaining adaptation of one of the greatest novels ever written.