Lost Illusions: Fake News in the Time of Balzac

In today’s age of Twitter and Instagram, Xavier Giannoli has adapted Balzac in an astonishingly modern period drama set to be released in American theaters on June 10. Peppered with nods to contemporary events, it points a finger at media cynicism and the manipulation of public opinion.
© Courtesy of Music Box Films

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. This proverb is a good way to describe the highs and lows of Lucien de Rubempré, the anti-hero of Lost Illusions. In this hefty novel written in three volumes (almost 900 pages), published between 1837 and 1843, Honoré de Balzac stripped bare the “human comedy” of his time and presented a precursor to today’s showbiz society. By focusing the plot of his movie on the chapter “A Great Man of the Provinces in Paris,” Xavier Giannoli (the director of Marguerite, inspired by American soprano Florence Foster Jenkins) hones in on a ferocious satire of Parisian journalism in the early 19th century.

Lucien is a young, naive poet filled with literary dreams. He leaves his native city of Angoulême to try his luck in Paris during the Restoration – a period which saw the return to favor of the nobility, who tried to claw back ground after the Revolution. The young man discovers a new, buzzing society driven by a search for gain and glory. “People aspired to personal success and wealth,” wrote Balzac. “Young provincials flocked to the capital, determined to forge a destiny.”

In the French capital, Lucien’s idealism comes up against social violence and the corruption of Parisian society – particularly in the publishing spheres he frequents, having failed to find a house to print his poetry collection. After being introduced to the (worst) practices of the press by Lousteau, the scandalous editor in chief of a broadsheet newspaper feared for its acerbic critiques, Lucien realizes that journalists sell their articles – and their souls – to the highest bidder, from advertisers to financiers.

© Courtesy of Music Box Films

In a similar way, the artists and prostitutes in the gardens of the Palais-Royal, who move in the same circles as the journalists, sell their art and their bodies. The director alludes to the regular conflicts of interest that regularly appear between newspaper management and their shareholders. The movie also references the contemporary proliferation of fake news: “To create an event, a paper could print any rumor. True or false, no one dwelled on such details.”

Giannoli provides a modern twist on Balzac’s analysis of the news industry. (If the author had not written his novel in the 19th century, anyone would think he was referring to today’s tabloid press or the insidious influence of social media.) The director brings in speed, movement, and extravagance, successfully dusting off the 150-year-old tome. Playing with the codes of gangster films – which has seen Lost Illusions compared to Martin Scorsese’s rise and fall movies – he portrays the editorial room at the Corsaire-Satan, a newspaper that hires Lucien, as the hideout of a mafia clan whose journalist members are prepared to do anything to sell their review of a show, or even murder (verbally) a star of the Parisian smart set. Pithy jibes win over the truth, and hypocrisy trumps sincerity. This “capitalization of minds” described by Balzac offers a narrative arc throughout the movie, coupled with cruel yet amusing dialogues.

The reviews were overwhelmingly positive – and rightly so. With fantastic staging and an exceptional cast (Vincent Lacoste excels in the role of a disillusioned editor in chief, as does Xavier Dolan as the literary moral compass and Jean-François Stévenin as the corrupt journalists’ leader, his final role before he died last year), Lost Illusions won almost every prize at the 2022 César Awards, including Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Adaptation, Most Promising Actor for Benjamin Voisin, and Best Actor for Vincent Lacoste. Balzac may have written his last word, but his teachings are more relevant than ever!

U.S. release: June 10
Running time: 150 min
Director: Xavier Giannoli
With: Jeanne Balibar, Cécile de France, Gérard Depardieu, Xavier Dolan, Vincent Lacoste, Jean-François Stévenin, Benjamin Voisin
U.S. distributor: Music Box Films

Article published in the June 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.