DOES THE WORLD have any more need for the Young Man from the Provinces? That figure, as aptly defined by the critic Lionel Trilling, describes a plethora of characters who populated nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, from Stendhal’s Julien Sorel and Flaubert’s Frederic Moreau to Dickens’s Pip and Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. He (and it is almost always a “he”) “stands outside life and seeks to enter,” according to Trilling; possessed of talent and ambition but devoid of money or pedigree, he relies on his cunning and wit to ascend the social ladder. The fortunes of the Young Man from the Provinces, caught between the haughty stasis of aristocracy and the gauche tumult of democracy, indexed the rise and fall of the meritocratic enterprise; his demise foreshadows the loss of mobility in a more calcified era. By reviving him for his César-winning adaptation of Balzac’s Lost Illusions, a novel first serialized between 1837 and 1843, the French director Xavier Giannoli promises to examine his relevance to our times.
Lucien de Rubempré (né Chardon) is a young and hungry poet from the provincial outpost of Angoulême, born to an impoverished but noble mother and a pharmacist father. Armed with a volume of odes and a becoming visage, Lucien (played by the sprightly Benjamin Voisin, after his breakout role in Summer of ’85) becomes enamored of the local patroness of the arts, Louise de Bargeton (Cécile de France), resulting in a scandal that sends both to Paris: Lucien to publish his poems, and Louise to enter Parisian society under the protection of her illustrious cousin, Madame d’Espard (Jeanne Balibar). That city, portrayed with elegant period detail, constitutes the driving force of the film, its charms and vices quickly luring Lucien away from his lofty ambitions; scorned by high society for his plebeian origins, he resolves to become a journalist for his revenge. Giannoli colors the film to evoke Paris’s champagne nights and ashen mornings, and the star-studded cast perfectly illustrates Balzac’s penchant for combining archetypal follies with individual quirks: Voisin’s initial puppy-dog countenance, growing into an attack-dog sneer; de France’s radiant and self-delusional country queen; Balibar’s puckered, wily d’Espard; and the Québecois director Xavier Dolan, who in a deft reversal plays not enfant terrible but society lapdog (and narrates the film).
Lost Illusions would be no more than a pretty costume drama, however, if Giannoli had not picked up on the source of Balzac’s kineticism, which stems less from any of his individual characters than the maelstrom of his time. Henry James remarked that the true protagonist of Balzac’s The Human Comedy, the sprawling forty-volume magnum opus that encompasses Lost Illusions, was the twenty-franc piece; here, it’s also the print culture coming into shape, and Giannoli accordingly lingers on every poster and advertisement plastered on the walls, as well as the churning, insatiable printing presses that blossomed in Restoration France. Balzac, with his legendary appetite, was almost a pre-cinematic writer—making sure, for example, to note not only who everyone is in a room, but what they’re wearing and where they bought it from—which is perhaps why he’s the patron saint of a certain lineage of French filmmakers (in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, the young Antoine Doinel lights a shrine to his hero and almost burns his house down).
Lucien befriends a young journalist, Étienne Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste), and joins the ranks of his Liberal newspaper, Le Corsaire. Press freedoms had loosened considerably under the constitutional monarchy, and journals were taking full advantage. This is a world in which everything has a price, from applause at a theater (supplied by the notorious and powerful claque), to laudatory reviews and even hatchet jobs, which furnish sales-driving controversy. Lucien receives a rude awakening from his idealism at several moments, none more so than during a visit to an unlettered greengrocer-turned-publisher, Dauriat (embodied by a characteristically carnal Gérard Depardieu), who compares literary reputations to commodities on the stock market, and announces that “literature nourishes illusions; I believe in pineapples.” If not entirely faithful to the novel, Giannoli captures the totality of Balzac’s epoch with a suitably omnivorous gaze, reminding us why Marxist critics like Georg Lukacs and Frederic Jameson were drawn to this most Royalist of writers.
In his previous films, Giannoli has displayed a persistent interest in the maintenance of illusions, from an opera singer who refuses to acknowledge her terrible voice to a teenager who reports an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Those films were somewhat wan, if only because their protagonists genuinely believed in their fictions (2015’s Marguerite is narrowly rescued by its Gilded Age period setting and its lead actress.) They ended when their illusions dissipated. Lost Illusions, by contrast, begins with disenchantment. We never do find out if Lucien is a genuinely gifted writer; despite professing a love for literature, we rarely see him work on it, instead attending lavish parties, demolishing his enemies, and engaging in general chicanery. His downfall arrives when he betrays the Liberals for the Royalists, under the false promise of legal recognition of his mother’s surname.
“Unless he was born rich,” the narrator warns, “every man has his fatal week.” The Young Man from the Provinces naively believes that society, unshackled from hereditary privilege, will come to be organized according to beauty and intelligence; instead, he quickly realizes the primacy of cold, hard cash. With merciless precision, Giannoli captures first the giddiness of having money, then the giddiness of not having enough. In the film’s lone departure from realism, Lucien floats feverishly above an ornate table as various goods—boots, books, pineapples—are traded across his prostrate body. Giannoli accentuates Lucien’s disenchantment by domesticating his version of the poet; on the page, he’s a more cutthroat figure, losing interest in Louise as soon as he compares her with the belles of Paris. In his adaptation, Giannoli has made Louise more alluring, Étienne more unprincipled, and gotten rid of d’Arthez, a central figure in Balzac’s novel who represents the merits of hard work. The director said that these decisions were made to lessen Balzac’s cynicism, but isn’t it more cynical to believe that sincerity and perseverance automatically equal boredom for the audience?
That audience is no doubt meant to draw parallels with the current government in France and its Restoration mentality, or to the advent of “fake news,” with the parallels between the nascent tabloid press of Balzac’s age and today’s click-subservient media. Yet in some ways the press in Lucien’s day was more honest, and at least selling itself for a cause. Giannoli gives his adaptation the feeling of a gangster film, and, like all gangster films, we end up sympathizing with the mob precisely because we know that the real gangsters sit in boardrooms and wear suits and ties. After all, it’s the Royalist paper in Lost Illusions which first claims to be “objective,” the better to defend the status quo. Lucien and his band of journalists’ commitment to truth was negligible, but their faith in the power of language to reshape reality was genuine. That ability to wield words as a weapon seems sorely missed in our age of puffery. Lucien might not have been much of a writer, but he sure was one hell of a critic.
Lost Illusions opens in New York theaters on June 10 and in Los Angeles on June 17.