The film adaptation of Honoré de Balzac by Xavier Giannoli lost illusions, lost illusions, happens to be the first to adorn silver screens. The three-part novel has only been adapted three times before: a made-for-TV movie, a play, and a ballet. It is not easy to condense such gargantuan literature into a feature film, but the director is up to the challenge. There’s no trace of hesitation in the epic tale – the screenplay was co-written by Giannoli and Jacques Fieschi – which trots quietly but confidently, like a 19th-century stallion through the cobbled streets of Paris.
From the extensive opening orchestral motifs, it’s obvious that this is an old-fashioned grand retelling of a classic tale. An orphan working in a small-town printing press, Lucian (Benjamin Voisin) harbors a monumental ambition to become a great writer. When an older married aristocrat, Louise (Cécile de France), whom Lucian is in love with, sees potential in him, Lucian accompanies her to Paris. Although he feels overwhelmed, the young man refuses to be just another “provincial flocking to the capital”. Not fitting in and being told to go back to his village only fuels his mission.
“…Lucien soon meets Etienne Lousteau, who…reveals the truth behind the industry…”
Although finding the newspapers rude at first, Lucien soon meets Etienne Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste), who hires him as an editor and reveals the truth behind the industry that supposedly promotes literature and art. Reviews are shamelessly bought; it’s about “raking”. Both appalled and seduced, our hero climbs the social ladder, falling in love with married actress Coralie (Salomé Dewaels) along the way. Before he knows it, Lucien is embracing the bureaucracy, even ensuring that Coralie is cast in a highly competitive role. I won’t spoil the ending for those unfamiliar with the source novel.
Giannoli does not aim to embellish Balzac’s unhappy life with modern stylistic flourishes, à la Baz Luhrmann. Instead, it focuses about how little our values have changed since then, outlining issues that remain as relevant as they were hundreds of years ago: large-scale corruption, brazen advertising, biased media, radical class divisions and blind pursuit of “raking”. These days, Giannoli seems to be saying, just like in the mid-1800s, to become a famous writer, you have to already be famous.