Balzac’s adaptation proves his media satire still stings

There’s a heady smugness in Xavier Giannoli’s new adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s “Lost Illusions,” as if the filmmaker is eager to put this film in the face of every human being on TV, or on Twitter, or even who has ever critiqued a movie, complained about current affairs, or complained about anything even remotely related to popular culture in the past 20 years.

Balzac arrived first. Balzac said it better. And Giannoli knows it very well.

Giannoli’s film, “Lost Illusions,” is a sexy, petty social satire about a young poet named Lucien (Benjamin Voisin, “Summer of 85”) who follows his heart, and his wealthy married lover, Louise (Cécile de France, “The French Dispatch”), in Paris in the middle of the 19th century. Quickly scrapped for fear of scandal, Lucien finds himself destitute and gets the only writing job he can find, posting controversial hot takes for a local rag.

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The world of journalism in France is, according to its editor Étienne (Vincent Lacoste, “On a Magical Night”), totally devoid of integrity. Malicious rumors make headlines, and if they’re false, retractions also sell newspapers. There’s no such thing as a bad faith argument, and even a sincere compliment can turn into vicious dirt if all you care about are clicks – er, “subscriptions”.

“Lost Illusions” has plenty of acid vitriol for the rest of French culture, too, portraying the wealthy as superficial con artists misleading the desperate, and blowing up studios – er, “theaters” – to recruit influencers to transform slights. applause in loud ovations. The commodification of art and opinion has warped society into a grinning parody of human decency, where every beautiful face is a mask and every written line has an agenda.

And while it’s fair to say that not everyone in Balzac’s story, Giannoli’s film or even in real life is an unethical monster using the media to manipulate idiots and transform irresponsible sons of gold, it’s impossible not to watch “Lost Illusions” and get the distinct impression that Balzac was reading the 21st century to defile nearly two centuries ago.

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Gianolli’s great adaptation isn’t just a wicked send-off and sultry period piece; it’s a poignant reminder that anyone who thinks they’ve cleverly uncovered the wickedness of mass media is hundreds of years behind the rest of the history class. Like the best stories told about ancient times, “Lost Illusions” feels remarkably contemporary. If Giannoli had transposed the action to one of the various online publications that Lucien’s employers closely resemble, it would be seen as a sickening confrontation. Instead, it is us in the present who feel like the victims of a terrible prophecy. Maybe we all should have been more careful in literature class.

To sell that point, Giannoli enlisted a superb cast of spiders and flies. Voisin walks a narrow path between youthful naivety and cruel immaturity, and Lacoste is delightfully seedy and attractive. We mourn the poor victims of their mass manipulations, including Lucien’s actress lover, Coralie (Salomé Dewaels, “A Mother”), and applaud when they profit from crass capitalist publishers like Dauriat (Gérard Depardieu).

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And we marvel at the alluring worlds they inhabit, from their newspaper desks filled with metaphorical and literal sitting ducks to their glittering gold office parties – “In the name of bad faith, false rumors and publicity, I baptize you ‘Journalist'” – and from their dandy outfits to their dodgy red stockings. The costumes by Pierre-Jean Larroque (“Benedetta”) are suitable for all occasions, and the scenography by Riton Dupire-Clément (“La Vérité”) is both dense and thoughtful.

And when “Lost Illusions” isn’t boasting Balzac’s ahead of its time — and rightly so — it’s still a satisfying drama about the annihilation of youthful ideals and the tragedy of selfish romance. Even if it were possible to ignore the haughty din of social commentary, you would still be left with a powerful and meaningful story about a small-town Icarus flying too close to the sun and taking many other people with him.

Overall, it’s a satisfying tale of how helpless we all feel in what all too often amounts to an endless cycle of unprincipled posts masquerading as serious commentary. “Lost Illusions” is a painful reminder that there is something deeply broken in the way we communicate in the media, at least as an institution, and that after nearly 200 years we still have no found a way to fix it. Assuming, of course, that someone even tries.

“Lost Illusions” opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 10.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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