In France, the names Rastignac and Rubempré serve as a kind of shorthand even today — two iconic characters who signify opposite sides of the same vice: Both prominent players in Honoré de Balzac’s expansive “La Comédie Humaine,” the ambitious parvenus are virtual nobodies of vaguely noble extraction who arrive agog in early-19th-century Paris, and compromise their way to the top. For Rastignac, the strategy actually works to his advantage; not so much for Lucien de Rubempré, whose swift ascent and humiliating fall are dramatically detailed in Balzac’s masterpiece, “Lost Illusions,” laying the roller-coaster track for this sumptuous and surprisingly au courant cinematic retelling.
Adapting Balzac is no small feat for any filmmaker, and in whittling down the three volumes (and 700-plus pages) that comprise “Lost Illusions” to a robust two and a half hours, director Xavier Giannoli has a million choices to make. Casting was crucial — he shrewdly taps “Summer of 85” discovery Benjamin Voisin to play Lucien, surrounding the gifted newcomer with top talents (including Gérard Depardieu and Xavier Dolan) — but more important was the filmmaker’s decision to emphasize the character’s shady career as a journalist.
Turns out, there’s nothing new about fake news, and it may shock today’s audiences to learn just how powerful — and how corrupt — the media was two centuries ago this year. Balzac set the tale in 1821, just as printing presses were making it possible to mass-produce misinformation and sell-out artistes set aside their dreams of writing great literature and settled for influence instead. “Money was the new royalty, and no one wanted to cut off its head,” Giannoli’s narration-hefty screenplay informs, liberally appropriating the master’s best insights (the master being Balzac, of course).
At the time, the novelist risked negative press by exposing Paris’ pay-for-play print racket for what it was. Now, all these years later, Giannoli gives Balzac the last laugh: “Lost Illusions” exposes his critics as the charlatans they were, detailing how any review can be twisted to serve an agenda — and worse, how easily the public can be manipulated. This sweeping period drama may be up to its eyeballs in costumes and carriages, but it plays with all the brio and jeopardy of a modern-day gangster movie, featuring hack journalists as its antiheroes.
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” as they say, or “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” As the film opens — in Angoulême, the same southwestern city rendered fanciful in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” — the idealistic Lucien fancies himself a poet, his efforts encouraged by a wealthy patron, the lovely, lonely Louise de Bargeton (a corseted Cécile de France, looking badly in need of some illicit attention). Louise believes in the arts, sponsoring a small collection of Lucien’s sonnets, dedicated somewhat indiscreetly “to her” — where everyone in the salon can infer whom he means.
For a young writer, it is an enormous validation to see one’s work in print, whether or not the words themselves merit the paper. Lucien certainly doesn’t lack for confidence after Louise makes the gesture of underwriting the publication of the poet’s “Marguerites.” But their special relationship — or its erotic dimension, at least — proves short-lived when Louise’s humiliated husband discovers her pet project, and Lucien is obliged to move to Paris to seek his fortune there.
Brandishing his mother’s maiden name, Lucien de Rubempré (né Chardon) arrives an idealist, determined to write a novel, and leaves a cynic, the subject of someone else’s. The space in between provides this shameless social climber a whirlwind tour of all the fame, fortune and romance a modern city can offer. For starters, Lucien receives his first invitation to the opera, making every wrong move imaginable at his closely watched debut: He invests in a silly-looking makeover, knows nothing of opera etiquette and, through his gauche behavior, proceeds to embarrass Louise and her even more dignified cousin, the deliciously viperlike Marquise d’Espard (Jeanne Balibar), who conceals her venom behind a condescendingly courteous exterior.
The opera sequence should make you squirm as it shows the still-sincere Lucien humiliated in the snake pit of Parisian aristocracy at the time. Americans love a rags-to-riches story, but class barriers are far less permeable in France, and the film depicts — and later punishes — Lucien for taking a shortcut to the top. There are aspects of “Citizen Kane” in his story, especially in its skeptical view of the press, though the outcome is not so dire. Balzac believes in reinvention, treating Lucien’s Parisian experience as a moral education.
When writing fiction gets Lucien nowhere, he resorts to waiting tables, befriending a regular — newspaper editor Etienne Lousteau (a terrific Vincent Lacoste) — who’s figured out how to make a living with his pen. Recognizing a more naive version of himself in the kid, Etienne takes him in and shows him the ropes. His job, Etienne explains, “is to make newspaper shareholders rich and rake it in,” and rake it in they do, accepting donations in exchange for articles and favors for rave reviews.
Both men are condescending toward the prostitutes they see in Paris’ streets, ignoring the irony that they’re even more compromised themselves, peddling their prose to the highest bidder. At this precise moment in French history, their influence is invaluable, and Etienne uses his to boost the prospects of his ingenue girlfriend — an example Lucien soon follows, trying to bury his feelings for Louise in the comforts of Coralie (Salomé Dewaels), a boulevard actress making her debut on the legit stage. As a try-out piece, Etienne invites Lucien to review her show, and his conflict-of-interest assignment sets both of their careers on an upward trajectory.
An aficionado of all things theater, director Giannoli (whose version of the Florence Foster Jenkins story, “Marguerite,” is better than Meryl Streep’s) illuminates audiences on how shows’ fortunes were made or broken through paid applause and bribes. Two hundred years later, the practice hasn’t necessarily disappeared, only gotten more sophisticated. Fascinating though Coralie’s world may be, she feels like a distraction to Lucien’s sidelined literary ambitions and his love for Louise.
Through Etienne, he meets a publisher (Depardieu) and comes to admire a rival writer, Nathan (Dolan), who serves as his conscience. Lucien finds himself in the position to destroy his rival’s latest novel, but rather than whack it — for he’s no better than a junior mobster at this point — he recognizes its merit and spares the book. For his other sins, Balzac doesn’t let Lucien off so easily, but that one act of mercy may well be the thing that redeems him in our eyes.