The busy, headlong story, in any case, is a whirring machine for the delivery of piquant ideas about human behaviour and about the workings of a society obsessed with reputation, status and appearance as well as money.

It's a familiar enough spectacle and if there's any justice, this movie will become a touchstone and cult object among the grasping, scheming denizens of the current media jungle.

Giannoli illuminates the dank frenzy of the 19-th century attention economy with an eye on our own post-truth era.

A young person from the provinces sets out for the big city, seeking fortune and fame and finding temptation, corruption and ruin.

It's a story that never gets old - there's usually plenty of lust, ambition and greed to keep the narrative engine humming - and variations pop up in the literature of nearly every nation and era.

''Lost Illusions.'' Honore de Balzac's novel of Parisian literary life, stands as a stellar example in its period, and now, thanks to Xavier Giannoli's invigorating  screen adaptation, in our as well.

Balzac, writing in the early 1840s, reached back a few decades to the Bourbon Restoration, a post-Napoleonic moment of high decadence and low scruple, but he uncovered some of the perennial principles of modern life.

Principles, though, are exactly what his moderns lack. The pistons that keep their world humming along are cynicism and hypocrisy, and brazen amorality winds through every institution they inhabit, from politics to publishing to theater.

Into this hive of striving and  back stabbing comes Lucien Chardon [Benjamin Voisin], a 20year-old poet we first meet in his hometown, Angouleme, in southwestern France.

There, he scribbles passionate verses in a sun-dappled meadow  and earns his living working in a printing shop. Not that his life is defined entirely by pastoral innocence and honest toll.

His hobby is vigorous adultery with Mme. de Bargeton [Cecile de France], a married aristocrat who invites him to read his poetry at artistic gatherings in the chateau.

Lucien has aristocratic pretensions of his own. He signs his poems  -and, later, his scabrous articles in the Parisian press - Lucien de Rubempre, using his highborn mother's maiden name. [Lucien's father, M. Chardon, was a pharmacist.]

When Madame's husband discovers the  affair, she takes off for Paris with Lucien and another would-be lover, the Baron du Chatelet [Andre Marcon], who will eventually be caricatured in the newspaper as an impotent turkey.

Lucien has pouty good looks and ostensible literary talent. The baron and Mme. de Bargeton have connections to the Marquise d'Espard [Jenne Balibar], a powerful figure in royalist circles. What seemed like a lark in Angouleme goes sour in a hurry.

Cast out of his protectors' company -his bumbling naivete, so sexy in the countryside, is embarrassing in the big city - Lucien finds his way onto the staff of an anti-royalist scandal sheet, where he makes a splash writing criticism.

As we follow the rake's progress onscreen - through editorial offices full of hashish smoke and on to bistros, bawdy houses and music halls - a narrator lays out how it all works.

Balzac, one of the fathers of literary realism, was a pioneer of what a later century could call the systems novel, and his explanatory zeal, far from didactic, is almost always delightful.

''Lost Illusions'' is sensational. Nobody paid me to say that. Well, actually, The New York Times did, but you should believe me anyway.

The World Students Society thanks review author A.O.Scott.


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