“French society would be the historian; I was only to be the secretary.” So Honoré de Balzac humbly characterized his sprawling, multi-volume panorama of French geography and social life. But as the Dantesque title of his Human Comedy suggests, Balzac was more a commentator—a Virgilian guide—than a copyist. By analyzing how historical forces and social relations press upon human dreams, he sought to accomplish for his contemporary France what Walter Scott’s historical novels had done for Scotland’s past. Natural history, occult mesmerism, dramaturgy: these and many other disparate authorities were to be recruited to the task.
What Peter Brooks has called Balzac’s “melodramatic imagination”—his use of heightened emotions, his novels’ Manichaean oppositions between the villainous and the good—has made him ripe for cinematic adaptation, from the silent films of the 1920s in France and Hollywood to New Wave revisions by Jacques Rivette. Those adaptations have taken various strategies, sometimes within a single oeuvre. Rivette, for instance, opted for a more dutiful translation of La Duchesse de Langeais in the 2007 period drama Ne touchez pas la hache, while his La Belle Noiseuse (1991), three hours of languorous, painterly shots, transposes the plot of the story “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” from Baroque-era Paris to contemporary Provence.
Xavier Giannoli’s latest feature, Lost Illusions (2021), takes its place somewhere in between. The lavish costume drama plucks a central strand from Balzac’s novel of the same title—originally published in three sections between 1837 and 1843 and one of his most impressive achievements—to trace the rise and fall of a recurring character in the Human Comedy, the aspiring poet Lucien Chardon (Benjamin Voisin). Whereas Balzac’s text exhaustively tabulates the many costs and corruptions of literary and proto-industrial society throughout Restoration-era France, Giannoli’s film keeps its focus more firmly on the spectacle of post-Revolutionary Paris. Filmed on location with a star-studded cast (several of whom have acted in other Balzac adaptations), the film takes evident delight in its portrait of what Walter Benjamin called the “capital of the nineteenth century.”
As the film opens, it is already clear that Lucien is not long for his hometown of provincial Angoulême. While he joins his sister Eve and brother-in-law David Séchard toiling away in their printer’s workshop, Lucien also has greater artistic ambitions. The author of a collection of sonnets, Les Marguerites, he has been cultivated and seduced by the aristocratic Louise de Bargeton (played to a pitch of guileless elegance by Cécile de France). The paradigmatic “provincial woman,” as Balzac characterized the type in one of his physiological sketches, Louise is bound to a mediocre, much-older husband. Despite her attempts to cultivate a literary milieu, at her salons Lucien’s poetry is met with bemusement and scattered applause. For Balzac, the provincial woman’s only two options were “resignation or revolt.” Louise seems to surprise even herself by choosing the latter, abandoning Angoulême for Paris with her young lover in tow.
Yet neither has thought through the social cost of their alliance. As Louise’s cousin and hostess the Marquise d’Espard (Jeanne Balibar) warns her, to align herself with an unknown working-class poet is a scandal from which she may not recover. Lucien may have taken on his impoverished mother’s aristocratic surname, de Rubempré, but rumors follow from Angoulême that he has no right to such self-fashioning. Louise, for her part, recognizes that to shed the whiff of Angoûleme—in one of Balzac’s more felicitous neologisms, “se désangoulêmer”—she will have to give up her protégé.
Abandoned by his patron, Lucien must find his own way in Parisian letters. He first falls in with the Cénacle, a fraternity of philosophers and artist types embodied in the film by the genuinely talented writer Nathan d’Anastazio (Xavier Dolan). Lucien’s most influential mentor, however, is the more cavalier journalist Étienne Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste), who recruits him to write for a newly launched newspaper with vaguely liberal leanings and teaches him to sacrifice literary autonomy on the twin altars of novelty and profit.
For it is 1821: the tumultuous Revolutionary years are a distant memory. Napoleon’s marauding empire is over, and the monarchy has been “restored.” Yet this is an uncertain, intermediate era all the same. Provincials are rushing to Paris to make their fortune and their reputation; press censorship seems to be slackening; there are stirrings of economic as well as political liberalism. As Finot (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), the newspaper’s managing editor, puts it, such liberties can perhaps best be described as the “freedom of a free fox in a free chicken coop.” In the anti-redemptive moral universe Balzac portrays, one’s greatest aspiration should be to stir up controversy and then, as Lousteau tells Lucien in the film, to “rake it in.” Audiences will heckle or applaud on demand, a careful choreography that springs into play for those ready to pay for acclaim or for sabotage. Even a noble lineage, these days, might be able to be purchased—or so Lucien hopes.
The son of a journalist himself, Giannoli recently told an interviewer that he didn’t set out to make a film against the press but rather “against a world that could lead the press to betray itself.” (The lesson has spread far beyond the nineteenth century; today, the term “canard” has given way in France to its Anglicized descendant, “les fake news.”) The opulence of the period production, however, ensures that the more obvious moments of contemporary relevance thankfully remain understated rather than overstressed. Like in Balzac, the main comparison here is to the strict hierarchies of the Old Regime. As Lousteau proclaims, after a first attempt to interest the publisher Dauriat (Gérard Dépardieu)—a grocer by trade—in Lucien’s poems: “You can pay for anything! That’s progress.”
In turn, as Lousteau tells his staff, everything that is “probable” is fit to print. In this semiotics of success, truth bends to the highest bidder: “A book is moving? Call it sentimental,” Lousteau instructs Lucien. “Intelligent? It’s pretentious. If it’s inspired, call it sensationalism.” Entranced by the language game, Lucien—a gifted writer, after all—soon learns to shuffle its deck to his advantage. Composing hatchet jobs and puff pieces for hire, he gradually strikes fear and respect into the haute society of the Faubourg that had once scoffed at him.
To have a hope at succeeding in the big city, as we learn from Balzac, you must begin by mastering its codes. First impressions are crucial: you must have the right clothes (your financial security should be inversely proportional to the expense of well-tailored attire). Reputations must be cultivated: since no one will purchase a book of poems by an unknown, Dauriat tells Lucien to start by finding himself “a famous mistress or enemy” who will foment a controversy in the papers. But rather than returning to pursue Louise, he shacks up with a “boulevard actress,” Coralie (Salomé Dewaels). The “prostitute with a heart of gold” that was such a pervasive literary trope in the Romantic-era fiction and drama of Victor Hugo, Eugène Sue, and Alexandre Dumas, Coralie slips easily between different characters on stage and in bed; she remains untroubled by the performances required by life in the capital.
Lucien’s tendency toward sincerity, in contrast, sometimes gets in his way. At an early opera scene, the fact that he is enchanted by the show itself exposes his naïveté. The real spectacle, of course, is unfolding offstage, among the spectators, within the boxes, in the wings. In gaining a taste for the luxuries of food, fashion, and flesh, Lucien never entirely masters the classic lesson of what the literary critic René Girard would later call “mimetic desire”: not only do we desire what others already possess, but it is by imitation that we come to know what’s worth wanting at all.
Meanwhile, Louise watches Lucien’s meteoric rise with her own mingled desire, admiration, and regret. While Coralie calls on Louise to assist Lucien’s aspirations to nobility but refuses direct financial help for their rising debts, Lucien himself has fewer scruples. The film makes the point rather extravagantly, in a full-frontal shot of the naked Lucien rising from Louise’s bed to gather a wad of bills she’s left for him.
Prostitution is a reigning trope in the film, as in the novel: poets peddle themselves to journalism, as women do to the writers. Literary and sexual transactions are part of the same marketplace, with pamphleteers and sex workers jostling for attention in the Galeries de Bois. Giannoli’s emphasis on heterosexual love plots does, however, diminish the Human Comedy’s far more flexible representations of gender and sexuality: the homoerotic bonds between Lucien and his friends, for instance, or the way that certain traits and behaviors are feminized or masculinized in Balzac’s prose. Late in the novel, the poet D’Arthez, in a letter to Eve, tries to explain Lucien’s behavior by describing him as “an effeminate young man who loves to be admired.”
Of a piece with Lucien’s feminized portrayal is the sense that he is not quite master but puppet of his own destiny. (“I am the author, you will be the play,” Lucien is told at the start of a subsequent volume of the Human Comedy by his next mentor, the master-criminal Vautrin.) In Balzac, this verdict owes much to the use of an omniscient narrator: neither the hidden presence of free-indirect narration nor the self-reflexive first person of modernist prose. The phrase voici pourquoi—“that’s why…” or “this is because…”—recurs throughout the novel, exposing the stories bourgeois society tells itself as so many myths. Giannoli’s strategy for capturing this trademark device is an unusually active voiceover that offers a reality principle amid Lucien’s illusions. Balzac’s demystifying tone is even more strident in the film, gleefully deflating Lucien’s dreams and aspirations, along with the particular ideologies of modern meritocracy: “The young poet imagined the city like a pagan goddess, open-armed, embracing talent and merit. But what did he know of Paris?” That growing up must necessarily entail compromise and disenchantment is a theory that neither Balzac’s novel nor Giannoli’s film subjects to much scrutiny.
It will take merely one “fatal week,” the narrator warns, for Lucien to teeter and tumble off his Parisian tightrope. His credit dries up; he loses his position at the journal; he fails to bid enough for Coralie’s breakout role in Racine to be met with applause rather than boos. The possibility of gaining royal authorization for his aristocratic name turns out to be as illusory as Coralie’s own aspirations on the stage. And the fungible politics of public opinion begin to take a rather more sinister turn, as the government wrests back its hold over an increasingly unruly press, and the brief gates of journalistic freedom clamp shut once more. (Balzac himself was writing at a slightly later moment, that of the “bourgeois monarchy” of Louis Philippe and the rise of the modern mass media. The latter was heralded by the founding of Émile de Girardin’s La Presse in 1836—the same year that Balzac’s novel La Vieille Fille was France’s first to be published in serialized form.)
Between the loud, smoky dens of journalism, the somewhat staid salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and the echoing emptiness of the expensive apartments that Lucien and Coralie can no longer afford to furnish, the film’s rapid cuts do justice to Balzac’s exhaustive mapping of Parisian social space. But in hewing so closely to Lucien’s sentimental education, the film elides some of the more remarkable elements of Balzac’s tableau. The story of Lucien’s rise and fall is only the central panel of a three-part triptych, each third of which first appeared in a standalone edition: the definitive titles became “The Two Poets” (originally published in 1837), “A Provincial Celebrity in Paris” (1839), and “The Sufferings of an Inventor” (1843). The novel is balanced equally between Paris and the provinces, that great “social antithesis,” as Balzac wrote in his preface to the Human Comedy, “which held for me immense resources.” It begins with an extended excursus into the transformations of printmaking technology and devotes nearly equal attention to Lucien as to his friend David, an “inventor”—another kind of artistic creator. The third section lingers at great length over David’s “sufferings,” as he schemes to develop a cheaper way of making paper and so further transform the possibilities of literary life in the capital.
If Paris, in Lost Illusions, is the space of aesthetic creation as well as of social intrigue, the provinces are consigned to the manufacture of raw materials. Yet as Balzac himself wrote elsewhere, “the provinces never exist on their own.” Not just an administrative category, they were also a powerful ideological and imaginative concept—one that accrued multiple, contradictory meanings over the course of the nineteenth century, from stifling backwater to innocent idyll to sites of very modern corruption (meanings that Balzac did no small part to help forge). Throughout Lost Illusions, these connotations jostle for supremacy. “We had something beautiful back there,” Louise sighs at one point to Lucien in the film. Yet in the novel’s final section, the schemes of David’s printmaking competitors to ruin him become a provincial intrigue to rival those of the Parisian press. Ultimately, Balzac suggests, there can be no clear division between backwards countryside and modern city, not least because the rise of industrial capitalism would increasingly depend on both the urbanization of the countryside and its containment as a site of extraction and expropriation.
Balzac’s novel traces a strikingly materialist account of literary life and print culture, from the making of paper in Angoulême to the savage reviews printed on that paper and circulating, to diverse effects, throughout the capital. It was the writer’s close attention to how “the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness,” in the words of Karl Marx, is “directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men” that made both Marx and Engels find in this conservative monarchist one of the most acute diagnosticians of modern life. (Cited in Marx’s Capital, the Human Comedy has also more recently furnished source material for the writings of Thomas Piketty.) By showing that the urban corruptions on which Giannoli’s film lingers depended on ones less visible and more distant—by illuminating the corridors that joined Paris and its provincial peripheries together—Balzac punctured a few more of modernity’s illusions.