How to Fit Balzac’s Magnificent Universe Onto the Big Screen?
Drew Johnson on Lost Illusions (1843) and Lost Illusions (2021)
What do we lose in transmuting Honoré de Balzac’s unwieldy novel, Lost Illusions, into a 141-minute movie, in the right-the-hell-now of our own gaudy moment?
We lose the famous carriage scene, in which Lucien, that tricked-out callowness of all the world rolled up into something that will have to serve as a hero, wearing all his money in comically inappropriate finery, is epically snubbed by Madame Bargeton, his provincial and (newly) former lover as she and her influential cousin, the Marquise d’Espard, roll by in a carriage along the Champs-Elysées.
A moment so full of oomph that we hear the echoes 80 years later, in much altered form between young Marcel and his uncle, a very different situation and a very different snub in the street. But in this adaptation, it means we’re never given quite so expansive a view of Paris as this would’ve meant—the closest is a nice, brief sequence in the Luxembourg Gardens—mostly we stay impressively cooped up in the Palais Royale.
And although yes there’s a cool, low-comedy coach-dodging scene in a muddy street, this movie’s Paris remains a concept. We lose Paris. In a tentpole novel of The Human Comedy, the massive, unfinished project of Balzac’s writing life (over a hundred novels and stories) that’s a worry, especially if we think of The Human Comedy as located along an axis somewhere between The Wire and the MCU.
In other words, the scale and the scope are the stakes.
Perverse for sure, in this moment, marking the end of Netflix’s way of doing things, during the great rollback, the great shrinkening, the great on the other hand to say… Lost Illusions should not have been Xavier Giannoli’s 141-minute movie, but a series?
Maybe even multiple seasons? Maybe even seasons following Lucien de Rubembré (I mean Chardon, or do I?) not just from provincial Angoulême to Paris and back again, but back to Paris again again—this is Balzac, after all, more is always more—to the sequel: Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes.
But it should’ve been: a great hulking series that opens as the movie does: the story of how the changing printing world is the great opportunity and the terrible test of a young man named Séchard. Séchard, whose father doesn’t leave him his printing business so much as bleed him dry for it, a story of great paternal cruelty told in excruciating detail—and Balzac was just serving the Séchards for starters.
In this movie, Séchard scarcely utters an audible line. The movie seems to forget what Balzac knew: that you could look around in 1820-something, buttonhole nearly any soul still somehow living, standing, and find a potboiler of a novel’s-worth of unimaginable change, suffering, and all the rest. Anyone over the age of fifty had survived every phase of the Revolution and Napoleon both.Balzac’s characters are almost always memorable in situ, surrounded by their city, the village, their moment, their inescapable circumstances.
Isn’t this the world, after all, in which Stendhal had himself survived the retreat from Moscow but more or less forgets to much mention it? Yet this movie is content to steer us narrowly toward the grotesqueries of the beautiful people.
After our ten minutes in the provinces, we stay glued to Séchard’s dear friend, Lucien de Rubempré (really lowly Lucien Chardon, his name a key point in the story). We meet Lucien’s much older lover, the Olympian Cécile de France, slip through a scene of humiliation, and then the huge provincial bookends of Lost Illusions, the novel, are gone.
When the movie remembers that Lucien isn’t actually very interesting, the pace quickens wonderfully, particularly in the middle third: the supporting cast shines and the cutaways (heavily augmented with voiceover) gives us all the machinations of a mad decade, money flung about in the creation of a media circus that the movie has no trouble comparing to our own.
Happily, a wonderful supporting cast swirls through all this, animating the carnival of the Restoration. Vincent Lacoste plays Etienne Lousteau, the corrupt editor of La Corsaire Satan, with enormous comic glee (he turns up again this month in Irma Vep on HBO, as does Jeanne Balibar the also corrupt Marquise d’Espard). The late Jean-François Stévenin plays a wonderful Singali, providing trained applause or boos at premieres to the highest bidder. And Salomé Dewaels’s tragic-actress-who-dares-love-Lucien is genuinely moving. Meanwhile, Gerard Depardieu turns up as well in a few scenes, serving up something like gravitas.
But the most curious figure is certainly Cécile de France, and the transformation that she gives to the provincial lover, Louise de Bargeton, and which the adaptation gives her… actually tells us something about where this Lost Illusions jumps the tracks and goes off in its own direction, away from Balzac.
You can’t cast Cécile de France in the part of someone who isn’t as unassailably beautiful as Cécile de France: and Bargeton isn’t meant to be. Or ask us to believe that her beauty doesn’t trump the hick town from which she has come to Paris. The movie forgives her everything—moral failures and failures of style—and insists we do as well. The book is much more cruel and then she largely fades from view. Here she has a whole arc… yet remains weirdly beyond judgment.
Kim Basinger did this all the way to an Oscar in L.A. Confidential and it’s part of a larger problem Lost Illusions faces: the glamor, the literal limelights, the original journalistic orgy of the ur-newspaper era? If you put a camera on them, the camera makes them movie stars… and then they slip away from Balzac’s contempt and slow burn. Benjamin Voisin as Lucien is really wonderfully callow, but next to the Lucien of the page, he’s still a hero, more Pip than pimp.
Which means, too, we end the movie on a weird valedictory note, and are not given the bonkers ending—really a to-be-continued for the ages—of the novel. A wonderfully weird ending, whose loss I mourn.
Stop everything. I’m comforted as I write this review by the fact that movie and book both are about the worthlessness of reviewers, the staggering ulterior motives and essentially arbitrary nature of reviews. Allow me to cosplay the Restoration: assume my personal corruption and that Lit Hub is as bought and sold as La Corsaire Satan. (If so, I demand my cut.)
Ignore what I say, watch the movie, read the book. On its own, it’s a charming spectacle of a movie. As a way of thinking about the particular contours of our own Procrustean narrative cookie cutters, our own constantly narrowing infatuation with the few, not the many, it’s very good indeed.
And the movie has a lot of charm: its oddest sin is that it makes Balzac seem so much lighter on his feet than he was, more like Dickens than he ever was himself able to be. What about Dickens? That slick hustler, whose gaudy perpetual success haunts all attempts to revive Balzac for Anglophone readers, perhaps as much now-forgotten Eugene Sue haunted Balzac in his own day.
In May, as luck would have it, I was in a room in Paris thinking about Balzac and Dickens.
I was in Passy, at the Maison de Balzac: a wonderful small museum made from the only house in which he lived and wrote that still survives. But those circumstances are pretty on point: the small house in a garden—the garden is still lovely—of a now-vanished larger house, Passy was the relative sticks of Balzac’s Paris, well down the Rive Droite, well away from the creditors who were stalking Balzac (so that he was living under the name of his housekeeper). He finished Lost Illusions in those rooms and now they have a desk, his cane, his all-important coffee pot, and dozens of caricatures of the man.
But there’s a room where the walls are lined with a display of the printing blocks for illustrations from various collected editions of Balzac, hundreds of characters—underscoring the approach Peter Brooks offered in his recent Balzac’s Lives—that sense of an author who creates people. It’s not so common a thing, after all? Dickens is famous it, but his characters arrive ready made for performance, collections of tics and mannerisms, that can be entirely reductive.
Looking at the woodblocks of Balzac’s pantheon, I thought about how his characters are almost always memorable in situ, surrounded by their city, the village, their moment, their inescapable circumstances.
Bérénice, say, the tragic maid of tragic Coralie in Lost Illusions: a small role in the movie. What did we lose? We lose her pride of place in Balzac’s cosmos, her showstopping moment in the novel.
With her beloved mistress (and childhood friend) dead and buried in a pauper’s grave, Bérénice—who saw Lucien for what he was—sees that the “poor boy” won’t even have the money to make it back to the provincial town he was so eager to leave. Bérénice out of love for her dead friend, out of something for Lucien, tells him to wait and walks away. After an interval they meet, and she gives him four coins, having prostituted herself just then on the street to a passerby. She gives Lucien the proceeds of the sale and melts into Paris.
A moment with so much of what makes Balzac grand: I hate to lose Bérénice. I hate to lose her.
Lost Illusions is screening at Film Forum through June.