Benjamin Voisin and Vincent Lacoste in Lost Illusions. Image courtesy Palace Films


M, 144 minutes

5 Stars 

Review by © Jane Freebury

This extravagantly-mounted, lush period drama adapted from the book of the same name by Honore de Balzac is set at a time of foment in France, the Restoration. The country had in quick succession experienced a remarkable revolution in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity, carried out a dark purge of terror, installed a new emperor and gone to war. Lost Illusions is set as the aristocrats begin to stage a comeback.

It’s in this context that a dreamy and idealistic, but not unambitious poet, Lucien de Rubempre (Benjamin Voisin), sets out for Paris to establish himself on a bigger stage. Or rather any stage. It’s not as though the good people of his region recognised literary talent when they saw it. Better to say he hoped to find recognition somewhere besides the reassurances and passion of lovely Louise de Bargeton (Cecile de France) the married aristocrat who had become his lover and patron.

An irreverent, playful tone is one of this film’s many pleasures. An old-fashioned, voice-of-god narrator explaining character and plot can be irritating, but here the voiceover works brilliantly. It’s the voice of Balzac himself, of course, delivering his mischievous perspective on every one of the characters, including Lucien.

Such attention to period detail hasn’t robbed the film of its vitality

This adaptation of the serialised novel, Illusions Perdues, written between 1837-43, is directed by Xavier Giannoli, who collaborated with Jacques Fieschi on the screenplay. True to its origins, it was shot in Paris, at the very locations where the novel’s narrative took place.

Such attention to period detail hasn’t robbed the film of its vitality. Far from it. Despite the extensive period detail, the camera never misses the little things that betray the human reality of situations. Such as the mood at the soiree chez Mme de Bargelet when Lucien recites his poem to a bored and listless audience.

Young Lucien loves beauty. Of course, he does. It is his favourite subject, and Louise loves being written about. Ill-advisedly, perhaps, she takes him along with her to Paris to help advance his literary ambitions. He is introduced to people who matter. Including a rising novelist, society darling Nathan d’Anastazio (Xavier Dolan), who detects a bumptious provincial under the bad hair, as does everyone else.

Cecile de France and Benjamin Voisin in Lost Illusions. Image courtesy Palace Films

Rejected by Louise and the beau monde, Lucien must fend for himself. While working in a tavern, he encounters a charismatic, young cynic, Etienne Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste), who offers another entrée for someone who has a way with words. Journalism, a burgeoning career at the time.

 If a book is well-constructed say it’s predictable, if it has style say it has nothing to say, if funny say it is superficial.

Make yourself a presence to fear

Although he once dreamed of writing a novel, Lucien reveals a particular aptitude for le mot juste in literary criticism, as he plunges into this area of print journalism in a disconcerting betrayal of his talents. There are some priceless scenes in which Etienne, once of pure heart and also from the provincial badlands, counsels Lucien on how to get ahead.  If a book is well-constructed say it’s predictable, if it has style say it has nothing to say, if it is funny say it is superficial, and so on. Make yourself a presence to fear.

The one and only Gerard Depardieu makes a brief appearance as the publisher Dauriat who can make or break a writer’s career, but the great literary influencer of his day is himself illiterate. Did someone say that to write a review, you don’t read the book, in case you are influenced by it? Such are the rules of the game.

Honore de Balzac was writing some time ago, but his take on the opinion makers in the print media of his day are up to the minute, and readily applicable to influencers on social media in our time.

To offset the intensity of this cynicism, there is an emotional touchstone in Lucien’s love affair with theatre actress, Coralie (Salome Dewaels), who is a sweet, sincere character, authentic to a fault, a breath of fresh air who draws out other sides to Lucien’s character. Voisin is excellent in the lead role, while Lacoste is outstanding in the support role as his friend and mentor. All performances are of a remarkably high standard.

Lost Illusions is a masterful, highly entertaining film at every level, with sumptuous production values, great writing and wonderful performances, all woven together by Giannoli’s thoughtful, skilful direction. A period drama vastly more modern than it seems.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 July 2022.  Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes