That royalty are known by their first name simplifies things for them. Printers and poets, not being on a first-name basis with the world, have a more complicated relationship with reality. The young hero of “Lost Illusions” is a printer named Lucien Chardon (Benjamin Voisin). Also a poet, he seeks to be known as Lucien de Rubempré. That different surname represents not just a different vocation. It also would indicate the attainment of a different class and status, or at least it would in Paris, circa 1840.
“Lost Illusions” arrives with impressive credentials. It’s adapted from a novel by Honoré de Balzac, that most unillusioned of great authors. “No young man, free and with over 1,000 francs, is truly sad to leave his family,” a narrator says in voice-over as the 20-year-old Lucien prepares to leave his provincial home. That is a very Balzacian observation.
The 1,000 francs comes courtesy of the beautiful and unhappily married Baroness de Bargeton (Cécile de France). The baroness loves poetry, and she loves Lucien. She attempts to set him up with aristocratic patrons once he arrives in Paris. Soon enough, Lucien’s found a different sort of patronage. Lousteau (Vincent Lacoste), a scurrilous journalist who’s also rakishly charming, takes Lucien under his wing. Among those he falls in with is Coralie (Salomé Dewaels), an earthy, warm-hearted actress who aspires to Racine. Like Lucien, Coralie seeks higher status, too, though far more justifiably.
“Lost Illusions” won seven Césars, the French Oscar, including best picture. It has the production values one might expect with that haul. The film is consistently handsome; and even when we’re in the bohemian world of Lousteau and Coralie and other disreputable types, everything looks rather plush. “Lost Illusions” has a fine cast, but make no mistake: The biggest star is the décor. Balzac being Balzac, you can safely assume how things are going to end. Seeing how Lucien’s furnishings and attire track his status makes following the plot easy.
Two creative bits of casting are a further credential. The director Xavier Dolan (”Mommy,” 2014) plays an aristocratic novelist, Nathan, who befriends Lucien. Nathan provides the closest thing the story has to a moral compass. There’s nothing moral about Dauriat, a cheerfully mercenary publisher. “Literature nourishes illusions,” he lectures Lucien. “I believe in pineapples. . . . Pineapples will save us from poetry, I hope.” It’s a memorable line, and Dauriat is rather memorably played by none other than Gérard Depardieu.
The most intriguing element in the film’s pedigree requires a little knowledge of film history to appreciate. “Lost Illusions” shares Paris, period, and milieu with “Children of Paradise” (1945). That sharing shows the bravery, or foolhardiness, of Xavier Giannoli (“Marguerite,” 2015), who directed “Lost Illusions” and cowrote the adaptation. Seventy-seven years is a long time, but “Children of Paradise” remains one of the most magnificent films ever made. (You can stream it via Amazon Prime or the Criterion Channel. Watch it with someone you love.) Giannoli does not shrink from the comparison. In fact, he calls attention to it. Not once but twice we glimpse a mime, who could be mistaken for Jean-Louis Barrault’s character in “Children.”
A good movie, “Lost Illusions” aspires to be a great one, but that ambition helps keep it from being a better movie. It’s overstuffed and a mite too leisurely: a self-consciously dignified film whose least dignified characters are its most compelling ones. You suspect Balzac would have sneered at it a bit, once he made sure the check for the rights had cleared.
Directed by Xavier Giannoli. Written by Giannoli, Jacques Fieschi, Yves Stravrides; based on the novel by Honoré de Balzac. Starring Benjamin Voisin, Cécile de France, Vincent Lacoste, Xavier Dolan, Salomé Dewaels, Gérard Depardieu. At Kendall Square, Dedham Community. Unrated. In French, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.