Benjamin Voisin (‘Summer of 85’) stars in this adaptation of Balzac’s novel about a young man who moves to Paris for love and artistic ambition.
Several factors threatened to ruin my chances of enjoying Illusioni perdute streaming ita, the French director Xavier Giannoli’s adaptation of Balzac’s novel of the same name. One: I was five days into the Venice Film Festival and struggling to shake off my jet lag. Two: That morning, in order to make the boat that ferried me from my Airbnb to the cinemas on the Lido, I forgot to drink coffee. Three: The film is more than two hours long. Four: Historical dramas tend to bore me.
Despite these conditions, I was thoroughly charmed by Giannoli’s film. With its stellar performances, dramatic orchestral score and rich costume and set design, Illusions Perdues is a worthwhile, sweeping narrative of love, lust and literary ambition. Adapting Balzac’s three-part serial novel is no easy feat — the expansive tale, written over six years, contains many moving parts. It’s a lengthy, inverted hero’s journey (a young man leaves his small town only to return unsuccessful) that risks becoming boring and predictable when translated to the screen. Giannoli avoids these pitfalls by teasing out and emphasizing the thematic similarities between Balzac’s biting cautionary tale and contemporary life.
We meet Lucien Chardon (Benjamin Voisin), a doe-eyed blond boy, in Angoulême, a small town in southwestern France. During the day he works at a print shop, but come night he writes sentimental (and occasionally sexy) poems for his secret lover, the aristocratic Madame Louise (Cécile de France). In Angoulême, a provincial town, Lucien’s poetry is relatively well received. Louise thinks he’s a genius, his family appreciates his talent, and, with that support, Lucien knows that it’s only a matter of time before he becomes famous.
When news of Lucien’s illicit affair with Louise become public, the lady and her young lover flee to Paris. The ill-conceived plan fails the minute they arrive in the metropolis, which is governed by a dramatically different set of social rules from those of their small town. It immediately becomes obvious that Louise and Lucien cannot be seen together, let alone orbit the same Parisian social circles. Lucien, whose mother was an impoverished aristocrat, does not have the capital to associate with his lover and her conniving, but deeply influential cousin Marquise d’Espard (brilliantly played by Jeanne Balibar). After a particularly embarrassing night at the opera, Louise tells Lucien that they can never see each other again.
Heartbroken and penniless, Lucien must now figure out how to survive alone in the ruthless city, and that’s where the fun begins. He quickly learns that in Paris, capital rules: Anyone and anything has a price. Giannoli reflects this greed with an exciting montage of money passing through every facet of society, including the actresses who pay professionals to sabotage their rivals’ shows by booing or to ensure the success of their own performances by initiating thunderous applause.
With the help of production designer Riton Dupire-Clément and costume designer Pierre-Jean Larroque, Giannoli constructs a magnificently chaotic Paris. The director pays an impressive amount of attention to the details of the opulent gowns worn by the royalists, the interiors of Lucien’s first dilapidated flat, and the raucous parties he attends once he finds his footing.
Through his first job, busing tables at an eatery frequented by university students, Lucien meets the brash Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste), who hires him to write for a liberal-leaning newspaper. Our naive protagonist jumps at the opportunity to have his words read widely, and convinces himself that this job won’t compromise his poetry. In fact, he says to himself, this will attract publishers who can then help him print his poetry collection. More than anything, Lousteau’s friendship helps Lucien learn quickly about a different part of Paris — one ruled by artisans with leftist politics and a bitter disdain for royalists like Louise.
Life begins to look up for Lucien, who quickly makes a name for himself. He becomes a critic at the newspaper after threatening to pan (but then choosing to praise) a new novel by rising literary star Nathan (Xavier Dolan), and falls in love with Coralie (Salomé Dewaels), a sweet and talented actress.
Eventually, the newspaper becomes Lucien’s entire world. Giannoli and co-writer Jacques Fieschi use their protagonist’s involvement to comment on prescient topics, from the death of criticism to the dangers of a press more concerned with increasing shareholder profits than with telling meaningful stories. Viewers will delight in the connections Giannoli makes, which bolster the film’s emotional threads. It’s impossible not to reflect on how capitalism compromises individuals in contemporary life while watching Lucien forfeit his integrity for ambition and wealth.
Illusions Perdues succeeds in large part because of a formidable cast. Voisin (the star of “Summer of 85“) makes an exceptionally excellent Lucien, embodying the character’s increasing thirst for status without losing sight of the boyish fantasies that drive them. Dynamic performances by Dewaels and de France ensure that the women aren’t just foils for the young poet’s emotional growth. We see glimpses, albeit brief, of what motivates their choices and how they toe the line between ethics and social capital.
Even though Lucien’s story ends tragically and somewhat predictably, the journey to that end doesn’t feel cliched. That’s because, even though it’s a historical drama, Illusions Perdues makes the young poet’s story refreshing.