The “Infernal Machine” of Our Modern Media Marketplace, Vivified: Xavier Giannoli’s Film Lost Illusions

Christine Haynes, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Launched into a media ecosystem featuring “influencers,” Tik-Tokers, Tweeters (at least before the destruction of Twitter by Elon Musk), and other “content creators,” this film adaptation of Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac, may superficially seem a quaint depiction of a literary milieu long dead. At the heart of this luscious—and often comical—costume drama, however, lies a very serious origin-story and critique of the modern media marketplace. Beneath the historic costumes and sets, the world it portrays is very much our own.

Published serially from 1837 to 1843, Lost Illusions tells the story of a young man from the provincial town of Angoulême, Lucien Chardon—or de Rudempré, as he styles himself—who comes to Paris to pursue a career as a writer. Through the travails of this character, Balzac aimed to illuminate three arenas of the “human comedy” in the capital: publishing, journalism, and theater—all of which he had significant experience of himself. From the mid-1820s, Balzac became involved in a number of failed ventures as a playwright, journalist, publisher, and printer1 that would inform his hyperrealist, if satirical, depiction of Restoration-era poets, novelists, journalists, editors, printers, newspaper owners, and book publishers. In the film, unlike the book, the story is narrated by Balzac’s alter-ego, Lucien’s rival, another writer named Raoul Nathan (splendidly rendered in the film by Xavier Dolan), who in the end exploits Lucien’s story for a novel called Lost Illusions.

Poster for Xavier Giannoli’s Illusions perdues (2021).

Otherwise remarkably true to the book, the film beautifully conveys its main themes of an innocent provincial’s corruption of by the vice of the city and the tension between art and money of the literary world. Lucien’s story is the wrenching, if clichéd, tale of a youthful devotion to beauty and love that is crushed by the materialism and cynicism of the adult, urban world. Taken to Paris—which he had mistakenly imagined would welcome him with “open arms”—by a minor provincial noblewoman who is his patroness and lover, Madame de Bargeton (played by Cécile de France), Lucien is quickly rejected by the haut monde and left by his mistress to make his own way in the capital. While working in a cheap restaurant in the Latin Quarter, he meets a hashish-smoking journalist named Etienne Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste), who teaches him the ins and outs of the publishing business—and life in general—in Paris. At the theater with Lousteau, Lucien meets a new mistress, Coralie (the luminescent Salomé Dewaels), a quintessential grisette with a heart of gold but lungs wracked by tuberculosis. In the film, his fall from innocence is depicted in vivid—even gruesome—detail. After consummating his relationship with Coralie in a carriage on the way home from the theater, Lucien vomits. In voiceover, the narrator comments, “He had seen under the skirts of the prostitute,” and now understood the reality of life in Paris.

In book and film, the story of disillusionment centers on the modern media marketplace.

In book and film, the story of disillusionment centers on the modern media marketplace. Via his new friend Lousteau, who insists that with hashish “everyone has talent,” Lucien is introduced to the mechanics—and machinations—of this marketplace. As he comes to know the various players in this machine, from starving writers to copy-hungry newspaper editors, from courtesan actresses to theater impressarios, he begins to understand that this is a world ruled not by art or beauty, but by money and celebrity. As he attempts to sell his volume of poetry and write his first novel, Lucien is diverted into journalism, where he learns many tricks of the trade, including: that newspapers are funded by share-holders and reliant on advertisements; that, in the interest of sales, such papers often publish canards, or “fake news,” whose circulation they sometimes accelerate via networks of pigeons; that these papers’ editors have no scruples about accepting bribes for reviews, in one case even stooping so low as to allow a pet monkey to choose which books to praise or pan; that public reaction to a play can be bought from a “influencer” named Singali, who invents a “machine à la gloire” that imitates the sounds of applause and of booing; that “good” writers will deliver negative or positive reviews in accordance with the politics of the paper for which they write and/or in the interest of their own reputation; and that everyone needs a famous enemy to “monter votre côte” (raise one’s status), like stocks on the Bourse. At the center of this media marketplace was the new occupation of book publisher, the éditeur. Called Dauriat (in a play on the name of a powerful publisher of Balzac’s time, Pierre-François Ladvocat), the figure of the publisher is grotesquely embodied in the film by Gérard Depardieu, in a brilliant cameo performance. Ostensibly an illiterate grocer-turned-book entrepreneur, Dauriat judges Lucien’s writing not on the basis of merit, but on its utility to his promotion of his “family” of authors. For the publisher, publicity is everything.

In its send-up of the early nineteenth-century literary marketplace, the film version of Lost Illusions is wonderfully attentive to material culture. In the spirit of the novel, which begins with a lengthy description of the pre-industrial equipment in an Angoulême printing shop, the film opens with a beautiful, light-filled shot of Lucien reading his own poetry from a manuscript notebook in a field, “dreaming of another life.” After a voiceover intones, “Pour Lucien, tout a commencé avec de l’encre, du papier, et le goût de la beauté” (“For Lucien, everything began with ink, paper, and a taste for beauty”), the film then cuts to a shot of a hand-press in action, in the printing shop of Lucien’s brother-in-law David Séchard—who features much less in the film than in the book, as does another foil, the poor hard-working idealist writer Daniel d’Arthez. When he is not lying in the field attending to the Muses—or his lover, Madame de Bargeton—our hero, Lucien, works in this printing shop. Early in the film, when Lucien reads his new collection of poems, “Les Marguerites,” to a salon hosted by Madame de Bargeton under a banner reading “Beauty Forever,” we see a close-up of an octavo printed volume. A few scenes later, we see Lucien contemplating some leather-bound books on his shelves, including Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, and the poetry of Lamartine. When Madame de Bargeton’s cuckolded husband learns of their affair, he comes to the printing shop to attack Lucien not with a weapon but with a pot of ink. Later in the film, in Paris, there is a shot of the recently invented steam-powered rotary press, which the voiceover labels an “infernal machine.” We also see the stacks of newspapers produced by such a machine, as well as the illustrated advertisements that appeared in them and the lithographic caricatures that circulated alongside them in bookshops and kiosks. With its sensibility to the physical look of ink, paper, books, newspapers, advertisements, type, and presses, the film highlights the differences—but also the similarities—between the media marketplace of the early nineteenth century and today. Although our own media culture is now often literally virtual, Lost Illusions reminds us that from the beginning the press has always been ephemeral. As Etienne Lousteau says to Lucien, “What we write is immediately forgotten; today’s paper is used to wrap tomorrow’s fish.”

With similar attention to historical detail, the film brings to life the novel’s descriptions of Paris, where, as a voiceover says, provincials flocked during the Restoration. Especially good is its depiction of the area around the Palais-Royal, where publishing co-existed with theater, prostitution, and the stock market at the time. The film’s sumptuous shots of the Palais, complete with prostitutes clinging to columns covered in affiches, look as if they are straight out of contemporary illustrations from the BNF’s Département des Estampes. Equally authentic are recreations of the era’s theaters, salons, restaurants, reading rooms, boarding houses, and bookshops. But, like the novel, the film also portrays the underbelly of Restoration-era Paris. Noting in voiceover “S’il fallait rater sa vie, il valait mieux la rater à Paris” (“If it was necessary to fail in life, better to do it in Paris”), it includes telling details, such as the nets installed in the Seine just outside the capital to catch poor suicides from the provinces, the racing horse-drawn carriages that Lucien must dart between to cross a boulevard, the wooden planks for which pedestrians must pay to avoid the mud in the streets, and the shabby garrets, reading rooms, and cantines frequented by struggling young writers such as Lucien and company. Like many poor young idealists at the time and since, Lucien is ruined by trying to outfit himself for society in the capital. After burning through his initial funds to acquire the latest fashions in the shops of the Palais-Royal, he writes to his sister begging for more money, noting that, “Paris is a bottomless pit.”

Although money ultimately trumps politics in Lost Illusions, the film follows the novel in attending to the particular political context of the Bourbon Restoration, following the defeat of the Napoleonic Empire in 1815. Without bogging the story down in confusing details about the variants of royalists versus liberals who jockeyed for power under the newly restored constitutional monarchy, it depicts the beginnings of modern political machinations, influenced by money, which a voiceover labels the “new royalty.” To break into the literary marketplace and retain his noble name, Lucien (like many at the time) becomes a “girouette,” or weathervane, shifting his political affiliation according to his material interest. Via Lucien’s (a)political development, Lost Illusions illustrates the complexities and contradictions of political culture in post-revolutionary France.

In sum, this film version does an admirable job of condensing the intricate plot of the first two parts of Balzac’s 600-plus-page novel in under three hours, while also recreating a realistic rendering of the literary and theatrical milieux of early nineteenth-century Paris. My only real qualm was with regard to the ending, which pictures Lucien alone on the banks of a lake in the woods between Paris and Angoulême, reciting a line from Nathan’s first novel, “I now stop hoping and start living,” in an ambiguous sort of re-baptism. Ignoring Part III of the novel, in which Lucien returns to Angoulême to witness the ruin of his family’s print shop, to which his own profligacy contributed, before fleeing again with the intention to commit suicide, the film hence misses an opportunity to recreate one of the great encounters in all of literature, between Lucien and the chameleon-like Vautrin, inspired by the real criminal-turned-detective Vidocq, who appears not just at the end of Lost Illusions, but also in its sequel, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, and in Le Père Goriot. Perhaps the filmmaker preferred a closed story to the novel’s more open-ended one, which connected to an extended, interrelated Comédie humaine. Alas, there seems to be no plan for a sequel featuring Benjamin Voisin (who won a César for his performance as “Most Promising Actor”) as Lucien after his departure from Paris.

Fortunately, this film is a rich “human comedy” unto itself. Through its faithful reconstruction of Restoration-era Paris, it illuminates the historical origins of many aspects of modern life, particularly the media marketplace. With lines such as “We will uphold as truth, anything that is probable” and “False information and denial are twin events,” it reminds us of the historic origins of our own obsessions with publicity and sensation. This timely film should resonate with any young (or older) person still clinging to any illusions in our brutally materialist and superficial world.

  • Xavier Giannoli, Illusions perdues (2021). France. 95 min. Color. Curiosa Films and Gaumont.