Featuring superb performances and an involving narrative, this handsome 19th century-set French drama about big dreams and stark realities feels oh-so-relevant today.
June 23, 2022
Stop us when Lost Illusions no longer sounds familiar. You won't; it won't, either. Stop us when its 19th century-set and -penned narrative no longer feels so relevant to life today that you can easily spot parts of it all around you. Again, that won't happen. When the handsome and involving French drama begins, its protagonist knows what he wants to do with his days, and also who he loves. Quickly, however, he learns that taking a big leap doesn't always pan out if you don't hail from wealth. He makes another jump anyway, out of necessity. He gives a new line of work a try, finds new friends and gets immersed in a different world. Alas, appearances just keep meaning everything in his job, and in society in general. Indeed, rare is the person who doesn't get swept up, who dares to swim against the flow, or who realises they might be sinking rather than floating.
The person weathering all of the above is Lucien Chardon (Benjamin Voisin, Summer of 85), who'd prefer to be known as Lucien de Rubempré — his mother's aristocratic maiden name. It's 1821, and he's a poet and printer's assistant in the province of Angoulême when the film begins. He's also having an affair with married socialite Louise de Bargeton (Cécile de France, The French Dispatch), following her to Paris, but their bliss is soon shattered. That's why he gives journalism a try after meeting the equally ambitious Etienne Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste, Irma Vep), then taking up the offer of a tabloid gig after failing to get his poetry published. Lucien climbs up the ranks quickly, both in the scathing newspaper business — where literary criticism is literally cash for comment — and in the right Parisian circles. But even when he doesn't realise it, his new life weighs him down heavily.
Lost Illusions spins a giddy tale, but not a happy one. It can't do the latter; exactly why is right there in the title. As a film, it unfurls as a ravishing and intoxicating drama that's deeply funny, moving and astute — one that's clearly the product of very particular set of skills. No, Liam Neeson's recent on-screen resume doesn't factor into it, not for a second. Instead, it takes an immensely special talent to spin a story like this, where every moment is so perceptive and each piece of minutiae echoes so resoundingly. The prowess behind this seven-time César Award-winner belongs to three people: acclaimed novelist Honoré de Balzac, who wrote the three-part Illusions perdues almost 200 years ago; filmmaker Xavier Giannoli (Marguerite), who so entrancingly adapts and directs; and Jacques Fieschi (Lovers), who co-scripts with the latter.
There's more to Lucien's story — pages upon pages more, where his tale began; 149 minutes in total, as his ups and downs now play out on the screen. When Louise decides that he doesn't fit in, with help from the scheming Marquise d'Espard (Jeanne Balibar, Memoria), spite rains his way. When Etienne introduces him to the realities of the media at the era, and with relish, he's brought into a dizzying whirlwind of corruption, arrogance, fame, power, money and influence. When Lucien starts buying into everything he's sold about the whys and hows of his new profession, and the spoils that come with it, Lost Illusions couldn't be more of a cautionary tale. Everything has a price: the glowing words he gleefully types, the nasty takedowns of other people's rivals and the entire act of spending his days doing such bidding for the highest fee.
Balzac's text was of its time — albeit savagely so — and also ahead of its time. Or, you could say that the years and technologies have changed since the 1800s, obviously, but human nature hasn't. Giannoli and Fieschi intentionally tease out Lost Illusions' still-relevant and even prescient notions, of course, and the result is a movie that looks rich and period-appropriate in every frame, and yet also feels timeless. Part of that sensation stems from the verve with which Giannoli helms, even with his feature sprawling across such a lengthy duration. Like Lucien when he naively thinks that his dreams are achievable in the film's first act, or when he later eagerly laps up the benefits of his choices — despite fellow writer Nathan d'Anastazio's (Xavier Dolan, IT: Chapter Two) attempts to warn him otherwise, and as his decisions start to impact his new girlfriend Coralie (Salome Dewaels, Working Girls), an actress — Lost Illusions has a spring, bounce and dance in its step.
Yes, that's Xavier Dolan, director of Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways, Tom at the Farm, Mommy and more, in a tremendous supporting role as one of Lucien's rivals. Giannoli gets the very best out of his supporting cast, including the always-welcome Lacoste, his Irma Vep co-star Balibar and the ever-reliable de France. But, as wonderful as each proves, none are tasked with conveying exactly what the movie's moniker exclaims. When viewers meet Nathan, Etienne, the Marquise and Louise, none have many illusions to lose. Voisin, with eyes that gleam so brightly when Lucien is praised for his poems in his provincial home town, is saddled with seeing fantasies crash, morals twist, hopes wither and hard truths set in. He has to express Lucien's growing lust for status, too, as well as his increasing willingness to shrug off the ramifications. It's a thorny part, and a consummate performance. While Voisin was also superb in Summer of 85, he's even better here.
Lost Illusions has much to say about heads filled with dreams; about quests to become the hero of one's own narrative; about the forces, such as cynicism, cash, class structures and an obsession with how everything looks, that trample earnestness and sincerity. It enlists narration to help voice it, but the intricate imagery lensed by cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne (Hold Me Tight) utters plenty anyway. Although almost everything glitters and appears exquisitely golden, little is beyond aesthetics. This is a film where opinions are bought, and not just in print. Paying for boos at theatre shows, including the more sensationalistic productions on "the boulevard of crime", is so commonplace that no one questions it. Lost Illusions itself wouldn't ever need the same tactics IRL, but this movie exists in a world where nothing it explores seems fanciful, farcical, an imagining of fiction or a relic of history. If viewers had any illusions otherwise, prepare to lose them in this sumptuous and savvy picture.
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