September 16, 2021

Lost Illusions – first-look review

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By: Adam Solomons

Canonical French author Honoré de Balzac is thought to be one of the more difficult to adapt. His politically thorny and emotionally intricate novels don’t translate easily to the screen. With his immense realisation of ‘Illusions Perdues’, Xavier Giannoli makes that challenge seem straightforward. The French director has not only produced a meaty and provocative adaptation of a Balzac gem, but also one of the funniest and most romantic films of the year.

Following upstart writer Lucien Chardon (Benjamin Voisin) as he seeks fame and fortune in a 19th century Paris defined by its new freedoms and raunchiness, Lost Illusions quickly swerves any indication it might be a staid or unadventurous period piece. Though almost two-and-a-half hours long, it feels much shorter. Economic pacing and nimble editing keep a heavy tale light on its feet. Benjamin Voisin also deserves praise for his lead turn as the ambitious journalist who vows to fight a war against mediocrity.

Yet while Lucien’s lofty principles for a better literary world inspire those around him, his artful point of view is tested against the low-brow instincts of papers which actually sell, most notably the punchy proto-tabloid edited by his best friend Lusteau (Vincent Lacoste). Lucien soon learns to stop worrying and love a newsroom in which editorial decisions are made by a small monkey (seriously). In return for parking his destiny, Lucien’s social climb is rapid, and his dream of taking on his mother’s noble title – allowing him to drop the name of his commoner father – becomes increasingly plausible.

Any young journalist looking for steady work alongside self-actualisation will understand Lucien’s dilemma, in much the same way it’s impossible to ignore the resonance of early fake news and misinformation campaigns among the Paris theatre district’s savage competition. But Lucien must also learn that the world is a savage place, regardless of how sophisticated the formalwear and genteel the etiquette. Not that he’s the only one suffering: wealthy Royalist Marquise d’Espard (Jeanne Balibar) is infatuated with Lucien, who prefers the chaos – and red stockings – of actress Louise (Cécile de France).

A handsome man with emotional intelligence beyond his years, Lucien is soon as successful among the ladies as he wishes to be among the Parisian newspaper barons – or, as Balzac puts it, “the publishing sultans”. The biggest beast both figuratively and literally is Dauriat (Gerard Depardieu), alongside trusty steed Nathan (Xavier Dolan). If Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, another Venice title, is about being chewed up and spat out by the big city, Lost Illusions is about the thrill of jumping right back in. It’s a joyous romp not to be missed.

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