‘Lost Illusions’ Film Review: Balzac Adaptation Proves His Media Satire Still Stings

This César-winner for Best Picture shows that not much has changed between 19th-century Parisian scandal sheets and the Twitter hot take

Lost Illusions
Music Box Films

There is an intoxicating smugness to Xavier Giannoli’s new adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s “Illusions perdue,” as though this filmmaker couldn’t wait to shove this movie right in the faces of every human being on television, or on Twitter, or indeed who has ever criticized a movie, complained about the news, or whined about anything even remotely related to popular culture in the last 20 years.

Balzac got there first. Balzac said it better. And Giannoli damn well knows it.

Giannoli’s film, “Lost Illusions,” is a sexy and mean-spirited social satire about a young poet named Lucien (Benjamin Voisin, “Summer of 85”) who follows his heart, and his wealthy married lover, Louise (Cécile de France, “The French Dispatch”), to Paris in the mid-19th century. Promptly discarded for fear of scandal, Lucien is left destitute and gets the only writing job he can find, releasing controversial hot takes for a local rag.

The journalism world in France is, according to his editor Étienne (Vincent Lacoste, “On a Magical Night”), completely devoid of integrity. Malicious rumors are headlines, and if they’re wrong, retractions sell papers too. There’s no argument quite like a bad-faith argument, and even a genuine compliment can be spun into vicious filth if all you care about is clicks — er, “subscriptions.”

“Lost Illusions” has plenty of acidic vitriol for the rest of French culture too, painting the wealthy as superficial con artists leading the desperate astray, and blasting studios — er, “theaters” — for enlisting influencers to turn mild applause into raucous ovations. The commodification of art and opinion has warped society into a rictus-smile parody of human decency, where every gorgeous face is a mask and every line written has an agenda.

And while it’s fair to say that not everyone in Balzac’s story, Giannoli’s film, or even in real life is a unethical monster using the media to manipulate the foolish and to spin irresponsible yarns into gold, it’s impossible not to watch “Lost Illusions” and get the distinct impression that Balzac was reading the 21st century to filth nearly two centuries ago.

Gianolli’s grand adaptation isn’t just a wicked send-up and a sensual period piece; it’s a poignant reminder that everyone who thinks they’ve cleverly sussed out the wickedness of mass media is hundreds of years behind the rest of the history class. Like the best stories told about earlier times, “Lost Illusions” feels remarkably contemporary. If Giannoli had transposed the action to any of the various online publications Lucien’s employers closely resemble, it would be seen as cloyingly confrontational. Instead, it is we in the present who feel like victims of a terrible prophecy. Maybe we all should have paid more attention in literature class.

To sell this point, Giannoli has enlisted a superb cast of spiders and flies. Voisin walks a narrow path between youthful naiveté and cruel immaturity, and Lacoste is exquisitely seedy and appealing. We grieve for the poor victims of their mass manipulations, not the least of which is Lucien’s actress lover, Coralie (Salomé Dewaels, “A Mother”), and cheer when they take advantage of gross capitalistic publishers like Dauriat (Gérard Depardieu).

And we marvel at the attractive worlds they inhabit, from their newspaper offices filled with metaphorical and literal sitting ducks to their glittering gold office parties — “In the name of bad faith, false rumors and advertising, I baptize thee ‘Journalist’” — and from their dandy outfits to their sleazy red stockings. The costumes by Pierre-Jean Larroque (“Benedetta”) suit every occasion, and the production design by Riton Dupire-Clément (“The Truth”) is both dense and thoughtful.

And when “Lost Illusions” isn’t bragging about how ahead of his time Balzac was — and deservedly so — it’s still a satisfying drama about the dashing of young ideals and the tragedy of selfish romance. Even if it were possible to tune out the haughty din of social commentary you’d still be left with a potent and meaningful tale about a small-town Icarus flying too close to the sun and taking a lot of other people down with him.

Taken altogether, it’s a satisfying tale of how helplessly mired we all feel in what too often amounts to an endless cycle of unprincipled s—tposting that masquerades as serious commentary. “Lost Illusions” offers a wicked reminder there’s something deeply broken in the way we communicate in the media, at least as an institution, and that after nearly 200 years, we still haven’t found a way to fix it. Assuming, of course, that anyone is even trying.

“Lost Illusions” opens in NYC and L.A. June 10.