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VENICE 2021 Competition

Xavier Giannoli • Director of Lost Illusions

“As a filmmaker, I hope that the audience can see the beauty of this civilisation, but also the cruelty”


- VENICE 2021: With his adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s work, a long obsession is finally put to rest, with the director revisiting “the matrix of the modern world as we know it”

Xavier Giannoli  • Director of Lost Illusions
(© La Biennale di Venezia - Foto ASAC)

With his grand adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s Lost Illusions [+see also:
film review
interview: Xavier Giannoli
film profile
, playing in competition at the 78th Venice International Film Festival, a long obsession is finally put to rest, with director Xavier Giannoli revisiting “the matrix of the modern world as we know it”.

Cineuropa: Why a Balzac adaptation, and what significance does he have in 2021?
Xavier Giannoli:
He understood that modern society would be a struggle and that everything was going to be about economics – and that the new God would be money. At the same time as Balzac was writing this, Karl Marx was walking the streets of Paris, and both knew that our entire civilisation was on the cusp of a radical change. So Balzac is the matrix of the modern world as we know it. He’s got it all: the power of money, the lies, the end of a certain kind of Catholicism, and a world without God, where you can buy and sell everything. That’s why the perspective of Lucien is so important – he has had a taste of beauty. But will it be possible for him to stick with this crazy world? I also liked showing this milieu of journalism from back then in these times of Twitter and Instagram. In many ways, these guys were like the influencers of today. What is authentic in this media world? Where is the truth?

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When did you first encounter Balzac yourself?
I read this book when I was 20 and studied Literature, and I became obsessed. By great coincidence and luck, my Literature professor at Sorbonne also talked about the cinema of Fellini and Scorsese, and how art can portray a civilisation. And there I was, 20 years old and obsessed with cinema, and this teacher brought Balzac into the picture. I’ve wanted to make this film ever since. But I wanted to do it right – with costumes and locations, and all the detail.

Is everything in the film real-life Paris?
I shot everything in France, in the real location, not in a studio or in the Czech Republic – which, of course, I also like, but it’s not Paris. I wanted to get an entire civilisation right, from the way we show how a woman can move in a certain situation to the vocabulary and the quality of French culture at that time. It’s all part of my obsession. As a filmmaker, I hope that the audience can see the beauty of this civilisation, but also the cruelty.

Balzac has been adapted many times for the screen through cinema history – there was a Lost Illusions French TV series in the 1960s. It’s safe to say that each period will have an “of its time” look, while still trying to depict “that time”, right?
Right. My father saw that series back then and said it was important for a lot of people. I hate to say bad things, you know, but it's very scholarly, lacking the modern “electricity”. For me, it was a wonderful privilege to have that same professor from Sorbonne, Patrick Berthier, as our advisor on Lost Illusions. He gave me all the real names of the shops during that period; it was like having a time traveller who could describe the things and the people exactly as they were, or weren’t. We watched some other period films together, including Barry Lyndon by Kubrick and Dangerous Liaisons by Frears. He found mistakes in both of them!

This period is sometimes regarded as one of the happiest times in French history. What would be your reaction to this statement?
It was a strange period. This was after the French Revolution and the aristocracy was coming back; it was after the violence of Napoleon. At this time, it was also possible for a young man to make his way into the world, but of course, he didn’t always succeed. I have this line, not from the book, but from my professor, about the police dragging nets across the Seine, dredging up people who came to Paris in search of luck but who committed suicide. So I wouldn’t say everyone was happy. But after what had been, it was certainly a well-needed break. And soon, there were more wars on the horizon. Let’s call it a “parenthèse enchantée”.

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