Period drama has a bad name, especially period drama drawn from literary classics, but there is a European tradition of grand historical films that match their sources’ canonical status with the cinematic strengths of narrative sweep and visual opulence. Think The Leopard as a peerless example: Visconti’s masterpiece is a tribute to Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel, but a tribute paid between equals. Xavier Giannoli’s Lost Illusions (Les Illusions Perdues), in competition at the Venice Film Festival, stands proudly with that tradition.
Lost Illusions takes as its text the novel by Honoré de Balzac, originally written as a serial between 1837 and 1843. A young aspiring poet arrives in Paris from the unspeakably unfashionable provincial town of Angoulème, hoping for recognition in the capital’s literary circle. Lucien (appropriately dewy Benjamin Voisin) is fresh-faced and full of sincerity; he believes in a cult of beauty, the purity of literature and the perfection of his love affair with Louise, a local noblewoman (Cécile de France) who has made him the star of the little salons she holds at her country estate.
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It is easy to predict how little moutarde that will cut in the capital, where Louise is seen in aristocratic circles as just as much of a country mouse as Lucien is by the lit-crit crowd. Both soon realize that beauty, literature and everything else are commodities here, for sale to the highest bidder. Favorable reviews are bought and sold by editors as a kind of cut-throat game; controversies are cooked up to sell papers on either side; audiences at even the most refined theaters are paid to cheer or boo. So much for art. As for love — well, as all the young actresses on the Boulevard know, rents in Paris aren’t cheap.
Lucien is lucky to meet the mercurial Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste, an actor unrivaled in his ability to suggest duplicity and corruption), editor of a scurrilous journal of nominally liberal politics who gives him a job roasting writers he doesn’t like. Through him he meets Coralie (Salomé Dewaels), a low-rent actress who, like him, harbors higher ambitions and becomes his soulmate. He also joins the circle surrounding Dauriat (Gérard Depardieu), an illiterate former grocer who runs the most successful publishing house in Paris. Smart, young penny-a-line scribblers gather each morning around his table to trade clever insults that are then repeated around town like favorite lines from South Park.
It is there that he meets Nathan (the Québecois director Xavier Dolan, excellent) another formerly serious writer but from the royalist side. Lucien is attracted to Nathan for two reasons: firstly, that he is genuinely talented and, secondly, that he has connections at court. Because Lucien has an Achilles heel: snobbery, he is desperate to get permission to use his mother’s aristocratic maiden name instead of his father’s plebeian one. He loves art, but he wants status. He wants — desperately — that entrée into the best circles. And in strict accordance with the rules of tragedy, his pursuit of that vain dream will ultimately be Lucien’s downfall.
Lost Illusions boasts almost every charge customarily made against period drama. It is long; slabs of it are narrated in voiceover, an old-fashioned storytelling timesaver now seen as regrettable at best; it is absurdly extravagant, stuffed as it is with elaborately dressed sets, costumes that could be in museums and every French star you can remember. It is filmmaking so conservative that it seems to hearken back to a time before the jump-cut.
But how could it be otherwise? Balzac was himself an extremely conservative royalist, albeit one who wrote about the corrosive evils of capitalism with the firebrand zeal of a Jacobin. Lost Illusions clearly required a very large canvas to do it justice. Giannoli — and the venerable French studio Gaumont, which is almost synonymous with this sort of film — do exactly that. It may not be innovative, but it is certainly grand.