Xavier Giannoli’sIllusions perdues won a raft of César awards this year, including for best film, best cinematography and best adaptation. This success seems like something of a fable, since the film itself is all about winning and losing. And the prize for the adaptation, which was undertaken by Giannoli with Jacques Fieschi and Yves Stavrides, is perhaps the most interesting, since the film feels less like a version of Balzac’s novel (written between 1837 and 1843) than an exemplification of Balzac’s theory of history, a sort of fancy dress version of a time much closer to us than the early 19th century.

Balzac refers to the ‘immense machine of journalism’ and has one of his characters explain the local meaning of the word ‘duck’ (canard): ‘A duck is what we call a fact that seems true but is invented to enliven Paris gossip when it gets boring.’ But most of the film’s dialogue isn’t his; nor did he invent what may be its finest new technology, the so-called fame machine (machine à gloire), where the seats of a theatre are made to produce a persistent clapping sound as though filled by an enthusiastic audience.

The film’s key themes are manipulation and purchase. Its characters explain and enact, over and again, the principle that anything can be fixed but the fixing has to be paid for. The setting, after a none too idyllic opening in the countryside near Angoulême, is Paris, or, more accurately, some interiors belonging to particular sections of Paris society: the aristocracy, which gets the new principle only late in the film; well-off businessmen and their much younger mistresses; the worlds of the theatre, book publishing and oppositional journalism (the major newspapers have titles like Le Corsaire, Le Satan, Le Diable). It is 1821, and a voiceover tells us that France is trying to forget the Revolution, to get over Napoleon and the long years of war, and to settle down under the restored Bourbon monarchy. We should note too that the film tells only one of the novel’s twinned stories: that of Lucien de Rubempré (Benjamin Voisin) in Paris and not that of his printer friend back at home. Perhaps Giannoli will turn next to Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, which continues Lucien’s story.

Lucien – his real surname is Chardon, but he soon puffs himself up into de Rubempré – is a young poet who has caught the eye of Mme de Bargeton (Cécile de France), a local aristocrat bored with her ancient, indifferent husband. After a scene or two showing Lucien lying in a field and writing a bit, then at work in a printer’s shop, he takes off for a social gathering at his admirer’s house. No one pays any attention to him except his hostess, but this isn’t just a reflection of society’s lack of interest in poetry and in people it doesn’t know. Society in this instance appears to be quite dead, a collection of human dolls whose job is to stand or sit still while someone paints a picture of them, or in this case makes a rather static piece of film. One of the characters, the Baron du Châtelet (André Marcon), the would-be lover of Mme de Bargeton, is different, and we see his nasty, plotting mind at work throughout the film. It’s notable that this nastiness is really interesting, because in the context that Giannoli is creating, anything that moves is interesting.

First prize for nastiness, though, goes to the Marquise d’Espard (Jeanne Balibar), whose eyes glitter with the malice her beautiful smile pretends to deny. She can ruin anyone while seeming to do them a favour. She does help Mme de Bargeton see her error in bringing Lucien with her to Paris – some indulgences are not permitted even by the slackest of moral regimes – and he is quickly abandoned in the alien city. He does a few odd jobs while trying to work out how to become a famous poet. He meets a writer who seems to be doing well because of his royalist connections – for some reason this character, Daniel d’Arthez in the novel, becomes Nathan d’Anastazio in the film – and who at first despises then befriends Lucien. In a nice metafictional touch, we learn at the end that Nathan is the author of the story we have been seeing and hearing.

Lucien’s real benefactor, a mixed blessing for him but pure gain for us, is Etienne Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste), an ex-writer who has become an editorial operator and master of the fix. He explains how everything works in this world which is a sort of underworld. You write a hostile book review that gains attention. Then you write a favourable one and the author is happy. All you have to do is be cruelly funny and follow instructions from the high-ups. As Lousteau says, ‘If you don’t scare anyone, you don’t interest anyone.’ He tells a wonderful joke about Jesus walking over the waves of the Sea of Galilee. The fishermen watching are unimpressed. One of them says: ‘He doesn’t even know how to swim.’

At the centre of this operation as far as books are concerned is the publisher Dauriat (Gérard Depardieu). He will even publish Lucien’s poems once the boy from the provinces has become famous as a lethal, wisecracking journalist. But fame has its price, and the plot of the film, insofar as it has a plot as distinct from a sequence of noisy and memorable scenes, concerns Lucien’s failure to understand this. Paris comes to consist of two zones: the newspaper office, dominated by the sinister proprietor Finot (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, familiar to many of us from the series Engrenages); and the upper-class salon, dominated by the sinister Marquise d’Espard. Between them, available to anyone for the right price, is Singali (Jean-François Stévenin), inventor of the fame machine and dictator of every claque in town, the master of cheers and boos, or what is taken for theatrical public opinion.

Having learned all he can from Lousteau, Lucien meets up again with Mme de Bargeton, quietly unhappy as ever, and is persuaded to join the royalists as distinct from the government-bashers. This is to betray Coralie (Salomé Dewaels), the young actress he has poached from her old protector, but he thinks his success will serve them both in the end. He even believes he can outscheme the schemers, and at first seems to succeed. He gets Coralie the leading role in a production of Racine’s Bérénice by threatening the director with the prospect of a lousy review, and Coralie, formerly known only for her red stockings and her cabaret dancing, does very well among the alexandrines. Lucien buys the appropriate audience support for her from Singali and writes several pieces for Finot as a way of clearing up his debts. But then, in a sad but rather persuasive comeuppance, Lucien has what the narrator calls ‘his fatal week’. We realise that Lucien has only the slenderest grasp on the deep economic logic of the world he is living in: however much you pay, someone else might pay more. The provincial remains a provincial after all, and he goes home.

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