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‘Lost Illusions’ is Balzac for the 21st century

Close your eyes, and this 19th-century costume drama about delusion and deception could be taking place today

Benjamin Voisin, right, and Vincent Lacoste in “Lost Illusions.” (Music Box Films)
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(3.5 stars)

In “Lost Illusions,” an aspiring writer wends his way through a gantlet of sex workers en route to meet a second-rate publisher keeping shop in the red light district of the big city. But this isn’t the story of some pulp novelist trying to get his foot in the door of 1970s Times Square. This is 19th-century Paris, as seen in this lively period piece based on Honoré de Balzac’s serialized novel of 1837-1843. French director Xavier Giannoli (“Marguerite”) honors the spirit of Balzac and the era but makes it clear that, if the 21st century seems like a cesspool of journalistic deceit, plus ça change, as they say in France. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The titular illusions belong to 20-year-old Lucien (Benjamin Voisin), a dashing yet naive poet who’s having an affair with a married high-society woman (Cécile de France). Lucien hopes his writing talent will earn him a place in her circle, but when she takes him to the opera, he’s like a feral child, his instincts unable to guide him through the upper-class pecking order.

After leaving his rural village for Paris, Lucien befriends another writer, Etienne (Vincent Lacoste), who introduces his unworldly protege to an exciting cadre of liberal journalists — including a publisher played by Gérard Depardieu — who regularly attack the royalist government. But the opposition is no bastion of integrity: Arts critics expect to be paid well to write a positive review, and Lucien soon drops his noble literary pretensions to embrace this corrupt environment.

The seedy underworld is populated with such figures as a smarmy rival writer who soon becomes a valuable ally (Xavier Dolan), a sneering critic (Jean-François Stévenin) who instructs his minions to infiltrate an audience with cheers or razzes — whichever pays more, and an actress (Salomé Dewaels) who falls in love with Lucien and hopes to escape the burlesque circuit for the legitimate theater.

“Lost Illusions” vividly depicts a time when life was more hands-on, when writing with pen and ink stained the skin and disgruntled audiences hurled actual rotten tomatoes at performers.

The duplicity depicted is highly entertaining, and Giannoli’s wry tone recalls Hollywood filmmaker Billy Wilder, a cynic who painted a bleak picture of mid-20th-century office culture in “The Apartment.” Somehow, this parade of appalling human behavior is perversely reassuring. As much as we’d like to think of the past as a place of integrity compared with today, writers (and everyone else) could always be paid off.

With the help of cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne, Giannoli immerses the viewer in Lucien’s sensuous world, watching him write poetry in an open field, bathed in sunlight, and pouring globs of black ink in his printing shop. The camera deftly follows the protagonist’s delirious upward mobility, his steady gaze giving way to a roving eye, in newspaper offices where livestock and tame monkeys run around like they’re on staff. (Maybe they are. The monkey does help writers choose which books to review.)

Giannoli, who co-wrote the script with Jacques Fieschi and Yves Stavrides, makes this centuries-old material spring to life, while remaining fairly true to its period setting and drawing smart parallels with today. (He’s a little less faithful to the novel, throwing out at least one major character.) The film’s tale of compromised journalism has parallels to “Citizen Kane,” as well as to Sam Fuller’s 1952 thriller “Park Row,” whose shamelessly melodramatic vision of yellow journalism in 19th-century New York seems, in a way, as if it could have come from Balzac.

At the same time, some references are a bit heavy-handed. As we see stacks of newspapers going up in flames, a narrator asks, as if with a wink, “What future was there for a newspaper, without paper or ink?” And if the suppression of small-press papers resonates with the moribund alternative press of today, there’s one big difference. Critics don’t — ahem — get paid extra for a rave review.

Harbor no illusions about “Lost Illusions.” It’s no stuffy costume drama. Just close your eyes and imagine its characters in modern dress, toiling away in digital publishing, and its wild delusions and deceptions could be happening right now.

Unrated. At the AFI Silver and Cinema Arts theaters. Contains nudity and sexual situations. In French with subtitles. 150 minutes.