Review: In Lost Illusions, a Young Poet Learns the Brutal World of Media and Criticism in 1800s Paris

It’s an old story: an ambitious young man leaves the provinces for the big city to seek fame and instead finds heartache, corruption and disillusion. In Lost Illusions, Lucien (the adorable Benjamin Voisin, Summer of 85) learns it doesn’t matter whether he’s a talented poet or not (we’re never sure that he is) because good reviews of books and plays are purchased, not earned. So he turns into a journalist and becomes part of the system.

The combination of a witty script with excellent performances and staging makes Lost Illusions a delightful film, even though it runs long at 149 minutes.

The work, adapted by director Xavier Giannoli (Marguerite) with Jacques Fieschi, from the Balzac novel, Illusions Perdues, takes place in the early 19th century during the Bourbon Restoration (1815-1830). The novel is set in three parts—in the provinces, in Paris and back to the provinces (Angoulême in southwestern France)—but the film focuses mainly on Paris. The setting gives Giannoli and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne a period with gorgeous costumes, sensuous lighting and glamorous theaters.

At home, Lucien was Lucien Chardon, son of a poor family, who works in a print shop. But when he escapes to Paris with his wealthy and beautiful patroness, Mme. Louise de Bargeton (Cécile de France), he takes his mother’s aristocratic name, Lucien de Rubempré. It doesn’t take long for Mme. De Bargeton to find she likes Paris’ high society better without the young poet and Lucien finds his way in the Paris scene by himself. He meets a journalist, Etienne Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste) who befriends him and explains the ways of the literary world. Lousteau introduces him to Dauriat, a lively and opinionated publisher, played with gusto by Gerard Depardieu.

Dauriat tells Lucien, No one buys novels by unknown writers. I don’t publish books by unknowns. They don’t sell. I only publish books by writers who are already famous.

Lucien: But how do I become known?

Dauriat: By knowing famous people. Get a famous mistress or a famous enemy who insults you in his paper.

The film’s setting and plot enable Giannoli and Fieschi to mock today’s worlds of journalism, literary and theatrical criticism in a 200-year-old context. They describe how the invention of the rotary printing press by German engineers (yes, that’s in the movie) made mass journalism possible and profitable with press runs in tens and hundreds of thousands and brought more advertising revenue for publishers. This new audience for advertising enabled the creation of advertising agencies to help publishers sell more goods that readers don’t need. Indeed, it was the beginning of the modern commercial era.

The world of Paris theater is lampooned too. Lousteau writes theater reviews—for money. He rakes it in, he tells the astonished Lucien. The theater business is a great success and theater managers give free boxes to journalists, who sell some and pocket the earnings. Theater managers also hire journalists to write reviews (positive for them, negative for their competitors). And they bring in the admired Singali (Jean-François Stévenin), an early version of a press agent, to organize claques to hiss and boo competitors’ productions and to applaud and give standing ovations for their own. Singali trains his crew in applause, standing ovations, laughter, hisses and boos. Mediocre play or masterpiece? Singali doesn’t care.

When the paper that Lousteau works for merges with another, Lousteau is named editor in chief. He announces in his introductory speech to his staff that “no article in this paper will be sold for under 150 francs!”

There is a specific term for false information, the narrator tell us: Le canard (or the duck). Maybe “because fake sensational news was like a wild duck chase.” News, debate and ideas now became goods to palm off on newspaper buyers.

Lucien takes to this new world of writing and becomes a successful critic and satirist. His girlfriend Coralie (Salomé Dewaels), a “Boulevard actress” (suggesting her low-class origins) tries to raise her profile by performing in Racine’s Berenice, with tragic consequences.

Lost Illusions is now playing in Chicago.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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