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Verlorene Illusionen / Lost Illusions

Director: Xavier Giannoli (France, Belgium). Year of Release: 2021

Angoulême, South-West France, the first half of the nineteenth Century. Lucien works in a print works. On the side, he is a talented writer who spends his time writing love poems to and about his aristocratic lover Madame Louise. When Louise’s husband finds out about their dalliance, she at first whisks Lucien away to Paris until it quickly becomes clear that he has the wrong style and the wrong dress sense to mix with a bourgeois audience. She gives him his marching orders.

Verlorene llusionen is based on a series of novels by Honoré de Balzac, one of the leading European novelists of the nineteenth century. The novel emerged as an art form around the same time as capitalism in Europe, and reflected its origins by often focussing on an individual (many early novels were named after their main protagonist) trying to succeed in a world where small opportunities were becoming available to the educated middle classes.

Novels were written by, for and about a class that had previously not existed – petit bourgeois men (and the occasional women like Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and the Brontës), whose success was based not just on the wealth of their parents, but also their individual talent. Some heroes, like Robinson Crusoe or Lemuel Gulliver, were part of the colonial system but all were somehow sympathetic. The bourgeois hero emerged as an alternative to the idle rapacious rich.

This did not mean that the aristocracy suddenly became irrelevant – in Lost Illusions, Lucien adopts the surname of his mother, who is from a good family which has fallen upon hard times. Although Lucien is to find a job and success as a journalist, Old Money is still controlling what is being printed in the form of rich proprietors who told their journalists – including the theatre critics – exactly what was expected of them.

The novel probably reached its peak in the nineteenth century, and Balzac was one of the most interesting novelists of this time. Unlike Zola and Tolstoy, who were encouraged by the social upheavals between the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune of 1871, Balzac was a social conservative. Nonetheless, he was much loved by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who saw him as an honest writer, who laid bare the contradictions of the political system which he supported.

This should make a new film based on the books of Marx’s favourite author fascinating. I can’t remember if I ever read the original novel, and if I did, it is too long ago for me to remember, so I can’t make any lasting judgement on the book itself. What I can say, though, is that this film is generally forgettable, and we (as ever, read I) have great difficulty relating to any of the characters. This means that we (I) just don’t care about what happens to Lucien.

This is a serious problem inherent in drama of this period. As I’ve already mentioned, unlike many earlier art forms, the European novel concentrated on a single hero, with whom we are expected to identify (or at the very least despise). An audience could engage with Etienne Lantier, Tess Durbeyfield or Ebenezer Scrooge and made some investment in their fate. Yet, at least in this film version. I just don’t give a shit about what happens to Lucien Chardon.

In between scenes of Lucien’s humble beginnings and his inevitable downfall (not a plot spoiler, we are told early on that this will happen, and besides which, it’s that sort of story), most of the very long (2½ hours) film takes places inside opulent mansions, where every room is full of chandeliers and candelabras. I guess we are supposed to be pleased for Lucien that he has finally made his way into this sort of society, but he does nothing to distinguish himself from the rest of them.

We see the venality when Lucien is excluded for wearing the wrong sort of clothes. What are we supposed to feel here? Sympathy? Contempt for the superficiality of high society? While I most definitely tended towards the latter response, Lucien spends the rest of the film trying to fit in with the very same inanities. I know that this is showing us that the exclusivity of wealth was still based more on power and family connections than ability, but Lucien does nothing to challenge this.

Similarly with Lucien’s development as a journalist. He finds it hard to find someone to pay to publish his poems, so starts working for one of the newly fashionable anti-royalist newspapers. He soon finds that some of the best paid work is in literary criticism – either lauding or reviling artistic works who are currently supported or opposed by his paymasters. In a key scene, he and a fellow editor discuss how they can turn a positive response to a work into a sneering cynical review.

After a while, Lucien goes out of fashion and is no longer required to write for His Masters Voice. Even worse, critics are slagging off plays featuring Coralie, the actress who he has been dating. And yet his descent into penury is portrayed as being as much his own fault for too much whoring and gambling as the cruelty of an unjust system. We see that this system is based on corruption but it all seems somehow unchangeable. No-one seems able to challenge the rich and powerful.

Verlorene Illusionen is, in part, a film of our times. The arrogance of the rich and duplicity of the press should be familiar to any sentient film goer in 2022. And yet, the underlying message seems to be “It’s shit, but what can you do, except sit back and watch a film of people wearing expensive clothes?” This is a film with a clear enough sense of injustice, but instead of getting angry it gives us long scenes of people we don’t really care about. It’s all just a bit too self-satisfied for me.

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