An intricate and cleverly woven tale of naïveté and deception, Xavier Giannoli’s period drama Lost Illusions reminded me of Dangerous Liaisons (1988).
Lucien de Rubempre (Benjamin Voisin) is a budding poet working at a printing factory in provincial France in the 1820s. He is feted by noble woman and patroness Louise de Bargeton (Cecile de France). The pair begins a hot and heavily affair, in which both are heavily invested. Problem is that if the scandal ever became common knowledge, well-mannered de Bargeton’s standing in society would be irreparably harmed. As a result, after he travels with her to Paris, she is forced to make a clean break, leaving Rubempre heartbroken.
Penniless, Rubempre picks up work in a restaurant, resorting to eating patrons’ scraps. Eyeing off writing as a full-time profession, Rubempre befriends young, hash-smoking, anti-establishment editor Etienne Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste). Lousteau opens Rubempre’s eyes to the money that can be made from immoral journalism – specifically book and theatre reviews that are “sold” to the highest bidder. Corruption is rife. Businessmen, merchants, actors and many more play a part in perpetuating and strengthening the practice. Soon Rubempre is up to his eyeballs in it too … seemingly able to churn out witty adverse prose at will. He catches the gaze of young actress/prostitute Coralie (Salome Dewaels) and vice versa. They fall madly in love. Rubempre’s notoriety grows and he sees a chance to avenge his ill treatment at the hands of de Bargeton’s conspirators.
Writers Jacques Fieschi, Xavier Giannoli and Yves Stavrides have lovingly and deliciously adapted the 19th century novel of the same name by French author Honore de Balzac. Under Giannoli’s direction, Lost Illusions has all the hallmarks of a sweeping melodrama. The film is rich in text and settings. The contrast between wealthy and impoverished is profound. I loved the time taken to establish the premise and then plant hand grenades. It works a treat.
There are many fine performances too. Benjamin Voisin impressed with his depiction of the self-assured Lucien Rubempre, who undergoes quite the metamorphosis. Vincent Lacoste excels as the drug addled wheeler and dealer Etienne Lousteau. Cecile de France readily channels a sad elegance and poise as Louise de Bargeton. Salome Dewaels is exuberant and effusive as Coralie. Xavier Dolan gives a finely balanced performance as Chadron’s adversary turned ally Nathan d’Anastazio.
Lost Illusions is high-class cinema at its finest. No wonder it received seven Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars), including for Best Film, Best Adaptation, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Production Design.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.