Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 21, 2022 8:58 am 
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Great expectations, then downfall, à la Balzac, updated

The most celebrated French film of the year in France, with a raft of 2022 César nominations and awards, Lost Illusions is a return to Cinéma de qualité - the kind of formally elaborate, conventional French movie that was made before the Nouvelle Vague shook everything up. It is accordingly lushly entertaining but without the strong mark of an "auteur." And yet, ironically it works overtime trying to be "relevant" to today, to media corruption, social networks, money triumphing over commitment, and "fake news." It's fun, it shocks a little (one memorable penis next to a wad of cash), it thrills, it enchants, it absorbs, and then it disappoints. You should still see it though, if you like well-made costume movies and if you appreciate French cinema.

Illusions perdues (the original French title) is a rather controversial adaptation - controversial because many French critics feel it twists the original much too violently in search of the contemporary relevance of Balzac's eponymous six-year-in-the-releasing serial novel about an ambitious young naive poet from the provinces (Angoulême) who comes to Paris, is corrupted, thrives, and is destroyed. There's a five-star cast headed by Benjamin Voisin, Cécille de France, Xavier Dolan, Gérard Depardieu, and more; gorgeous cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne; a long run-time that holds the attention because it teams with action, throbs with sweeping string music by Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, and its mise en scène recreates the world of early 19th-century Paris, the time of the Bourbon royalist restoration, with a restrained, satisfying vivacity.

The prelude is a little wan, and its conventionality almost overwhelms it, but if it works it makes us fall in love with Lucien (Benjamin Voisin, who shone in François Ozon's period gay YA tragedy Summer of 85), the slim, pretty young aspiring poet in Angoulême who works at a print shop. His slim volume of verses, as pretty as himself, is called Marguerites ("Daisies") - a title which his hard-nosed new comrades in Paris will mock, but with which he seduces a lonely, beautiful, sad noblewoman, Louise de Bargeton (Cécile de France, gray and palely beautiful throughout: she does not change, and there is none of the vivacity that supercharged L'Auberge Espagnole). Louise and Lucien romp in a field. He reads his poetry at a salon at which she presides and, alas, the provincial gentry snicker. They don't appreciate the finer things.

This early section, and the transition from the provinces to Paris, is a dose of Balzacian social reality. Lucian aspires to finer things, rejecting his father's petty bourgeois family name of Chardon and calling himself after his well-connected mother, "Lucien de Rubempré," though snobs constantly remind him his name is Lucien Chardon. (No matter: Lucien de Rubempré becomes accepted as his pen name.) He and Louise, who rejects her boring much older husband, go to Paris in a carriage together. In a virtuoso sequence Giannoli depicts them attending the opera with Louise's aristocratic cousin and now sponsor and hostess, the Marquise d'Espard (Jeanne Balibar, whom English-language critics admire in this role: she is always distinctive, but she seems out of tune with everything else). This is Lucien's first big comeuppance. Word goes around the theater that he's a commoner and should not be in the box with these ladies. The way he has dolled himself up and puffed out his hair, people think he must be the Marquise's coiffeur. The Marquise tells Louise riding alone with him to Paris in the carriage was a terrible faux pas. She starts to distance herself from him.

Later, Lucien applies to get his claim to nobility officially approved. But like any young unformed hero, he's pulled in different directions. And the best scenes are those involving Vincent Lacoste, who grabs his juicy role as Lousteau, the cynical young journalist and has great fun with it. Surely this is an exaggerated picture of things and of Balzac, but we get a picture of a world that is mind-blowingly up for grabs to the highest bidder. Reviews for books are bought. You can get a good one or a pan for money, and that goes for everything. The tie-in with contemporary politics is obvious. Likewise with theater. A man named Singali (Jean-François Stévenin) is in charge of "claques" that, for pay, can make or destroy a new play by cheering or booing.

With Lousteau's hilarious descriptions of how Paris life can be gamed, Lucien starts not just to smile again but to laugh a lot. The two guys turn into bros. Are they just bros? You sort of wonder with Nathan d'Anastazio being nearby, a composite figure played by the openly gay French Canadian director Xavier Dolan, who also turns out to be the omnipresent narrator. The prevalence of voiceover narration has been much criticized in this film, but it has also been pointed out that Balzac's social panorama could not have been filled in cinematically without such a device. There are lots of other characters, notably the publishing impresario played by Gérard Depardieu, Dauriat who - get this - is illiterate; and another important media figure, Finot, played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, the lead in Mia Hansen-Løve's lovely film, The Father of My Children. There are specifics about the papers - more scandal sheets than anything else now - and good visuals depicting them and the advertising and posters of the period, which were monochromatic and had not reached the technicolor richness Toulouse Lautrec was to bring to them. The color is in the clothes. The men are peacocks, none more so than Voisin as Lucien, and his girlfriend becomes famous for her red stockings.

Lousteau harnesses Lucien's writing skill to pen, and we mean pen, articles for his paper, each one paid for - instant gratification - at the end of the day. Lucien meets and falls in love with a guttersnipe actress, the ample Coralie (Salomé Dewaels). He thrives, and partakes of the constant drinking and eventually the hash smoking, which Lousteau partakes of freely. One of the film's most voluptuous sounds is the slow explosion of the big matches he uses to light his hash pipe. Writing routinely begins with a flute of champagne. As in the heyday of American newspapers, journalists are hard livers. Lucien lives an exciting, busy, hard-working, dissolute life. He reads for a living, not for culture. He stops writing poetry. He engages in a "rivalry" with frenemy Nathan (Dolan), each sniping and stroking the other; and one again wonders, are they just frenemies, or....?

With the preposterous explosion of bought journalism and Lucien's brief triumph as a prolific producer of satirical squibs for pay, Giannoli's movie really blooms, but in the sadder decline segments in the latter half the bloom wilts and things get to be, inevitably, a drag. This is where we start to wonder, "Is this really real? Did this even happen in Balzac?" And it all starts to seem like a big glorious costume bonanza of nothing so much. That's the point, maybe, because Lousteau, who is the raisonneur of the piece, despite the omnipresent slightly stolid voice of Xavier Dolan's neutral narrator, declares to Lucien at one point that everything they do will be forgotten, they are producers of ephemera.

This may wind up despite its twelve Césars (that's a lot) seeming ephemera too, compared to more deeply felt movies like Giannoli's own lovely and touching 2006 The Singer/Quand j'étis chanteur, starring Gérard Depardieu and Cécile de France. That had more of an auteur about it, as did Giannoli's oddball In the Beginning/À l'origine (with Depardieu again, and the inimitable Emmenuelle Devos). The Singer is about an art also that is ephemeral, but one that its practitioner loves. There's not much love in Lost Illusions. Shouldn't there be?

Lost Illusions/Illusions perdues, 149 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 5, 2021, showing at many other festivals including Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Mar. 8, 2022. French theatrical release Oct. 20, 2021, AlloCiné press rating 4.0 (80%), and the spectator rating is 4.3. June 10, 2022 US limited release. Watched online for this review. [url=""]Metascore:[/url] 81%.

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