Balzac: a Passionate Life (1999)



Director:      Josťe Dayan. 

Starring:     Gťrard Depardieu (Honorť de Balzac),  Jeanne Moreau (Charlotte-Laure),  Fanny Ardant (Eve Hanska),  Virna Lisi (Madame de Berny),  Katja Riemann (Laure d'Abrants),  Claude Rich (Maitre Plissoud, the Bailiff),  Gert Voss (Victor Hugo),  Sergio Rubini (Eugene Sue),  FranÁois Marthouret (Docteur Nacquart),  Marianne Denicourt (Adle Hugo),  Gottfried John (Count Hanska),  Pascal Vannson (Paradis),  Hervť Briaux (Charles Sedillot),  Didier Lesour (Surveillant Bossu),  Enguerran Demeulenaere (Balzac Enfant). 

the mother, the work and the loves of a founding father of realism in European literature


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

The young boy known as Balzac has spent four years at Bandon. In all those years his mother only visited him once. But today will be the second time. The head master says he has only ten minutes and not a minute more. He runs to his mother, but she stops him with her raised hand and tells him: "No. Someone who is third-last in class deserves neither caresses or kisses!"

A wagon carrying books to the dump is stopped by Balzac. He says they are carting away his books and he wants them to stop. A policeman checks out the disturbance. He looks at the books and sees two authors: Horace de Saint Aubin and Lord Ríhoone. Is that you? asks the officer. Yes, he writes under those names, but his real name is Balzac.

The adult Balzac has set up a printing press. His mother has come to look at the place.  Mother says after spending a lot of money for his law education, he ends up peddling books. He will publish his own books, but not at first. He says the name Balzac will become know not in literature, but in business. Mom looks over his first printing job and says even with a magnifying glass you could not read the fly droppings on the page.

Balzac goes home to his lover Laure. The older woman tells him that a bailiff paid her a visit. He put his seal on everything. Balzac ignores that and wants to make love to Laure.  After dinner with a friend, Laure says that sometimes she is jealous of the characters that Balzac creates in his writings. She thinks it a bit strange that she keeps encouraging him to write and especially so when he doubts himself.

A man and woman come in and Balzac takes notice of the woman. The woman asks her companion who is that man. He became the lover of Madame de Berny (aka Laure) after having tutored her children. Balzac asks who is that? Laure tells him it is Eugene Sue, the great novelist. Balzac is amazed to see the popular writer, but he tells Laure he did not ask about the man, but rather the woman. She is the Duchess Laure díAbrantes. Balzac approaches her and tells her that he has a lot of women in his life named Laure. The Duchess, however, is somewhat stand-offish and tells him he will never call her by her first name. Later, Balzac writes a letter to the Duchess.

The Duchess arranges to meet Balzac at a gambling house. She says he is here to bring her luck. The Duchess takes what money Balzac has, places it on a number and wins 64 times the amount she bet. He takes her to his place, saying she can sleep in his bed and he will sleep on the couch. Balzac tells her sheís the most beautiful woman in the world. She tells him he must earn the right to have her. Laure suggests that this moment inspire him in his writings. In a way itís a beauty and the beast scenario.  Balzac is inspired by the situation and leaves saying he must write it down. He asks Laure to forgive him but: "The imagination is an impatient mistress." Laure is shocked that he left her.

Balzac asks his mother for 1,000 francs. He says that Duchess Laure díAbrantes has hired him to write her memoirs. His mother knows her and says half of Europe has slept with her. Balzac says think of all the secrets that will be revealed. Mother will give him the money.

His lover Laure comes to see him to ask what does he see in the Duchess? Balzac replies that she is a legend. And she is the widow of General Junot. She has even danced in Napoleonís arms as Moscow was in flames. Laure becomes sad and tells Balzac that she doesnít think she can go on like this anymore. He insists that she can.

At the tailorís place, Victor Hugo meets with Eugene Sue. He wants to know if it is true that the Duchess has found Balzac to write her memoirs? Eugene dismisses Balzac and his writing. But Hugo tells him to go into his pocket and get the book Balzac just published: "The Code of Honest People, or the Art of Not Being Duped by Rogues." Sue says that such books have no risk of competing with their writing, but Hugo tells Sue that the justice and honesty with which the man judges todayís events and people is truly amazing. He says Balzac has 50 new ideas each one worthy of a novel. And Balzac will write the novels.  At this moment Balzac comes in praising the tailor. He says good-day to Hugo and Sue. He wants a whole wardrobe, one that corresponds to the way he writes: generously and on a large scale.

Balzac visits Duchess Laure and she laughs at his colorful attire. She says his new wardrobe will cost him a lot of money, but he says the famous tailor did it for free in exchange for a little advertising in his book. Changing the subject, Balzac gives the Duchess a draft of her memoirs. She is impressed but doesnít want his name to appear on the cover. Balzac will take it off, if she will compensate him. He wasnít thinking about money, but since she mentioned it he is willing. Laure tells him she has no money. So she will give him a small Rembrandt painting in compensation. He accepts.

Balzac pays a visit to Victor Hugo at his home. At home Laure sees the book of the Duchessís memoirs. Balzac comes home and tells Laure that this time his visit with Victor went well. She asks Balzac if he had an intimate relationship with the Duchess. He tells her no. This must make Balzac suffer, she says, and suffering can be used in his writing. Balzac tells her that one must paint the suffering of others, not those that he sees in his own mirror.

The bailiff comes and confiscates some small statues owned by Balzac.

Laure falls ill. Balzac asks her doctor what is the problem and the doctor tells him itís her heart. She is getting old.

Balzac looks at his father in his casket. Balzacís mother remarks that at 83 years of age, a liver abscess is always fatal. She says that father left him nothing. Balzac looks through his fatherís papers and finds an article about him. But itís not about his father, but rather his uncle. His uncle got a young girl pregnant and to prevent a scandal he killed her. He was then condemned to death. Balzac doesnít believe in capital punishment and he argues with his mother about the sentence. She tells him to go away.

Itís summer and Laure is enjoying the day. She tells Balzac that this will be her last summer. She does not want to grow too old and be an object of pity. He protests, but she insists. He tells her he has finished a writing on the elegant life. Laure canít believe that amidst Paris being under fire and the king about to be toppled, he writes of elegant living. Balzac says his writing will affect a lot more people than those involved in a riot in Paris.

Balzac has a big success with his "Skin of Sorrow". He is now mad at the publisher for publishing so few copies. He had even told the publisher that the book would be a success. The publisher says he will print 6,000 copies, but now Balzac says no. He wants to make a lot of changes in the book. He just realized that the previous night.

Balzac visits the Duchess again. This time he is intimate with her. He starts to leave but she asks him to stay. The place is too empty. She gets scared, she says. He tells her that one of her stories has inspired him to write his next book: "Colonel Chabert".

Balzacís mother says that there have been 50 deaths from cholera and thatís why she is fumigating the house. She also reproaches women who have nothing better to do than read her sonís books and write him admiring letters. They come from all over Europe, including Russia. His mother says that Balzac has received his third summons. They want him to join the National Guard for a month as per the new decree issued by King Louis-Philippe. Balzac tells his servant to get him a carriage, but he is told that there are too few carriages to carry the cholera dead, so the authorities have seized all the carriages.

Balzac dines with the Dutchess. She complains that he has not come to see her for months. He blames it all on the cholera epidemic. She says she has punished him by slandering his name to people who mean a lot to him; people like Victor Hugo, Musset and George Sand. She told them that Balzac has been put into a madhouse. Balzac laughs heartily. He forgives her. He says that he abandoned her after she gave herself to him because he was engrossed in his work. The Duchess says that Prince Murst and Chancellor Maitreíd worked feverishly too, but they never neglected her. Balzac says in his case his work wears him out, exhausts him. She says his indifference disgusts her and that he only loves himself. But, says Balzac, I do not love myself.  He loves the work that is in him. She makes fun of his work. He defends himself by saying when he puts together all that he has been writing, everyone will see "a vast picture of our society, of our century" He is writing "The Human Comedy." She says "excuses, excuses." The truth is, she says, he was not made to write.

Balzac tells his mother that he knows about his half-brother who she had with another man. She couldnít stand his father and so always despised him, her child of her conjugal duty, but always loved his half-brother, her love child. Mother reproaches him for bringing this up now that she is a widow. He says he has forgiven her and does not judge her. She says she has done everything for him. She has given him all the money he asked her for. Balzac asks her if she gave a lot of money to his brother. Yes, because the poor man had business difficulties, she replies.

The National Guard comes in and seizes Balzac. His jailer tells him that if he pays money he can have his own cell and the right to receive visitors. Balzac pays the money. Victor Hugo and his wife have dinner with him in his cell. She notices that he is in love. But he doesnít even know who she is. Itís the Russian woman who has been writing letters to him. Balzac travels to a lake in Switzerland to meet the woman. She is there walking with her husband and two children. Balzac introduces himself to her husband and the wife smiles. The husband thinks Balzac a bore and says he canít wait until they get back to their Ukraine.

Laure goes to Balzacís mother to ask where is he. She tells him that he is in Switzerland on the edges of Lake Neufchatel. Mother ratfinks on her son saying his illness is called Countess Hanska. Mom blames Laure because she encouraged him to write. Without her he could have had a good life with a good profession and a regular income and a house.  Laure strikes back by saying the mother should support her son. Instead she suffocates him. He needs his freedom to create a new world. Mom hits below the belt by saying his new love is young. Laure asks if she could read one of the letters written by Madame Hanska. Moher gives them all to Laure to read. Laure is devastated and cries.

Balzac meets with Madame Hanska. She has an hour of freedom. He tells her that she is beautiful. She says she has no feelings anymore for her husband. She emphasizes her need of romantic love, but he says romance is too sentimental. She decides to leave. He says he wants to kiss her. She says he wonít. They kiss. She then tells Balzac that her husband is sick and they wonít have long to wait to be happy. They agree to meet tonight.

When Balzac returns home, he finds the rooms empty. His mother could not stop the bailiff from taking everything because she did not have the 45,000 francs that was owed to his creditors. She refers to her son as a failure which upsets Balzac. He says if he was here at the time  he could have borrowed the 45,000 francs from friends. And he says he is not a failure because people know him everywhere.

Balzac tells his mother that he will find Madame de Berny. She is devoted to him and has always supported his work. He says: "She knows that I need calmness and a free spirit to work." His mother tells him that Madame de Berny is dead. Balzac is shocked and stunned. Mother reveals that she told Laure about his affair and now wonders if it hastened her death. The woman was buried three weeks ago. Balcaz says: "Oh, no!" He runs to his room and closes the door.

Balzac stays in his room causing his mother to worry. She asks for his forgiveness, if she has hurt him. Mom says that in the end she knows that he is not bad. But now with that woman gone she no longer stands between them and maybe they can grow closer.  Balzac rushes to the grave site. He throws his body onto the grave.

Balzac calls his doctor in. Apparently, he has been having trouble writing. The doctor suggests that he find a diversion and relax. Balzac says he would like to see Madame Hanska, but he doesnít have the means to pay for the trip. The doctor says he will give him the money for the trip.

Balzac attends a costume party dressed as a beast (a lion). Madame Hanska is dressed as George Sand the writer. She is very surprised to see Balzac. They go down to a secret grotto so they can be alone. Alone they kiss. She suggests that they go to the Hotel Bonnevault. Balzac thinks that's too risky. Her husband has challenged him to a duel over a letter Balzac wrote to his wife. Balzac goes to find the husband to confront him. He finds him. They will meet in the park tomorrow and duel with sabers.

They meet early in the morning. Balzac has brought no witnesses because he doesnít think the duel will really take place. But the husband insists that it take place. Balzac explains that the letter was just a standard novelist description of a burning passion. Who was the letter written to? To Lulu. Would Madame Hanska let him refer to her as Lulu?

Balzac shows up for the rendezvous with Madame Hanska. He says heís the happiest man on earth. He says he loves her very much. And he calls her Lulu.

Balzac sets himself up in a large house. He has his mother come out and he talks to her of all the pretty paintings and tapestries he will buy for the house of his "exile". Mother brings Balzac back to reality by saying that the Roman Catholic Church has declared his books evil and no Christian is allowed to even open a novel by him. She says: "God has rejected you!" She refers to her son as a damned soul who will take her with him to eternal darkness. Her son defends himself by saying: "How can I help it if men are greedy, vain and perverted? Iím not the one who created them. God did." Mother says he is still blaspheming.

It has been three months since Madame Hanska has written to him. Victor Hugo comes to see him. He says there is a bailiff and a policeman downstairs. This time it is serious! No more suspended sentences. He is to go to debtorsí prison. Balzac sneaks out of the house and jumps into a carriage.

Balzac is back home. He tells Victor Hugo that "Cousin Bete" as a serial will bring him a small fortune. His servant rushes in to give him a letter from Russia. Balzac opens it to read that Eve Hanska is finally a widow and he believes he will finally find happiness.

Balzac sends her a letter. She tells her daughter that since her husbandís will is being challenged, her reputation must remain above reproach. The daughter picks up a book by Balzac and starts to read it, but her mother stops her. The daughter will soon be marrying and mother tells her Balzac thinks that marriages donít last. The woman soon grows tired of the man. The daughter says then she is relieved, for she thought Mr. Balzac might want to marry her mother. Madame Hanska laughs at the very idea of her becoming Madame de Balzac. She says itís an absurd idea.

Balzac writes again. He says he is suffering from what amounts to writerís block. His mother scolds him not to do anything foolish before Madame Hanska gets her inheritance. Balzac tells his mother that he wants to marry the woman, regardless of the inheritance. Yes, marry her and finally be very happy. His mother is very disapproving and skeptical.

Balzac knocks over the table and a fire starts. He puts the fire out but some of the pages he wrote are destroyed. His mother says he can just write them over again. This makes her son angry and he tells her to get out of his house. He says that he never had a mother, only an enemy! His mother leaves with her eyes tearing.

Balzac has great difficulty finishing "Modeste Mignon". He becomes sick with jaundice. Balzac tells his doctor that he canít write because of love. He has loved Madame Hanska for 16 years but has only seen her for 16 days. Paris is 800 leagues from Verchovyna. This is what upsets him to the point of preventing him from writing anymore. He says: "So you see, Nacquart, I think one can die of love."

A woman from the Ukraine comes to visit Balzac. He is shocked when she tells him she is the sister of Countess Hanska. The sister presents Balzac with 100,000 francs. Her sister won her case. Verchovyna belongs to her now. Balzac thinks the money is provided to make him go away, to leave Countess Hanska alone. But the sister says the money is for his marriage. He thinks the woman is toying with him for he has asked her sister a thousand times to marry him to no effect.

The sister says that people think that Balzac does not know how to count. He replies: "I spend money like others get drunk, to drown my unhappiness." He asks how much it costs to go to Verchovyna? The sister explains that his beloved is coming to Paris. Balzac is very pleased.

Mother talks with Balzacís servant. He tells her that Balzac has come into a fortune and has even paid him his wages and his back wages. Mother gets the servant to tell him where Balzac is. She goes to the studio of David where her son is having a sculpture made of him. Mother walks in to the room where Balzac sits. He is shocked to see her and not pleased. He says she is more persistent than the bailiff. She tells him she knows about the fortune, but Balzac tells her the money is to pay for his wedding. And isnít that a good cause? Mother says taking care of oneís mother is also a good cause.

Balzac and the Countess ride in a carriage. She has been in France for three months already. He says they will live together forever. He says that his Moncontour will please her even if itís not as big as her Verchovyna. A little later she tells Balzac that she is pregnant with his child. Balzac is happy about it, but she is not happy. She will return home alone. The Countess explains that she lied to him about her age. She is considerably older than she told him and is not sure that she can take the baby to full term without putting her own life in danger. If she or the child or both of them should die, she would prefer to be at home.

Balzac shows Hugo around his new house. He is having everything fixed up. Balzac says he must finish the house or Eve will not come back. He is making a room for his future son. And his son will have everything that Balzac never had. And, above all, he will have love.

Eveís sister arrives. She brings news that the baby girl was stillborn. Balzac is crushed. Eve is alright but she wonít return to France and she wonít marry him. Russian law prohibits her from marrying you. Without another word, the sister turns and leaves.

Balzac travels to the Ukraine to see Eve. She has a swimming pool for her bath. Balzac rushes in. They kiss. Balzac still talks of marriage, but Eve is not so sure. Balzac talks to Eveís now-married daughter. She explains to him that her mother is afraid. Yes, says Balzac, she fears that God will not bless this union. But the daughter tells Balzac that he doesnít understand. She is scared of him, Balzac. In his letters he always speaks of being ill and she is afraid she will have to become his nursemaid. This upsets Balzac greatly.

Balzac shows Eve that he has kept all her letters and even the envelopes. She tells him to throw them into the fire. He says he canít do that. She is afraid that they will fall into the hands of someone who will use them against her. She tells him that she has already burned his letters to her. He burns the letters to prove his love for her. He tells her that there is no law preventing her from marrying him. She would only have to give up her estate. She says she loves him, but she will never leave Verchovyna. He doesnít understand because he has never owned anything, she says.

Eveís daughter is moving out of Verchovyna with her husband. Eve gives her the key to the chest where Balzacís letters are kept. She saved them because they are the letters of a great writer and a part of his work. She tells her daughter that she will marry Balzac. The daughter is shocked. She is afraid that she is marrying Balzac because he loves her so much, is a great writer and because she feels pity for him. The daughter is very skeptical.

Eve gives a party to introduce Balzac to her relatives. But at the party he is a real bore, talking constantly of money and his schemes to get more. He doesnít even notice that Eve is disgusted with his performance. She especially doesnít want him to cut down the estate trees to make railway cross ties. That venture would fail just like all his other business ventures, she says at the dinner. She says itís a writer she is marrying, not a manufacturer. "Keep your dreams in your books, Honore". She leaves the table and goes upstairs.

The next morning Balzac asks her why she is preparing such a shabby wedding? In Paris he would have married her in Notre Dame. "Instead, we will marry on the sly in some forsaken hole." He is afraid that she still has fears of being his nursemaid, so he asks her directly about this. She explains her reactions, but she has changed her mind since then. Balzac is moved by her talk and tells her he loves her. He also tells her that he now offers her the chance to refuse to marry him. He tells her to protect herself. Eve says no. They will marry. And he will finish "The Human Comedy" so they will know he is a great writer. She does not know if she will be able to love him, but she is sure she can help him. He says thank you and kisses her. She leaves. He goes back to his writing.

Balzac develops pneumonia by the time his wedding day arrives. They marry. They start traveling by carriage to France. The wheel gets stuck in the mud and they are stranded in the middle of nowhere. The driver runs to get assistance. A whole bunch of men arrive to try to push the carriage out. They finally get it out. In a hotel room he gives her a necklace. When she puts it on he realizes he cannot see it very well at all. He complains of a fog in the room. An apothecary examines him. He tells Eve that itís an ophthalmia associated with his excessive weight. He thinks he might become blind.

Balzacís mother oversees the preparation of the dinner. She must leave as soon as she hears the carriage bells. When the newlyweds come into the house, Eve freaks out over the maidís cat. She insists that the cat be out of the house or she will kill it. Balzac apologizes to her, but she tells him that she senses she will not be happy here.

Balzacís doctor says his eyes will get better, but he is worried about all his other problems associated with his being so out of shape. Balzac tells Eve that this is the happiest time of his life for he has married the woman he loves.

He is upset about the newspapers saying he is blind. Eve gives him a preparation with hashish in it. Balzac asks Eve if she ever loved the man separate from the writer? She says she has pity for the man, but her heart bursts for the writer. He replies: "The writer is flattered, but the man is stunned."

The old bailiff shows up and Victor Hugo reproaches him for making Balzacís life a misery. The bailiff only says that he wanted to tell Balzac that his book in which he appears didnít make him cry, but it made him want to read all his other books.

Balzac asks Eve to get Doctor Bianchon. Eve tells him that the doctor does not exist, he is one of his characters he created. He asks who is she? She is his wife. Madame Hanska? No, Madame de Balzac. No, thatís my mother, says Balzac. "She doesnít love me." He goes on to say itís all the work that has killed him and he did it to prove his worth to his mother, but she never wanted to see it.

Balzac has developed gangrene and cardiac dropsy. Hugo says: "What a horrible death." The doctor says his suffering has been great and still is. Eve is polite, but ice cold to Balzacís mother. Mother is still jealous and petty. And now that her son is near death and cannot hear her, she tells him for the first time that she is very proud of him. She kisses him several times.

There is a flashback to the time when on her second visit to the institution, she rejected her son with complaints about his being third-last in school.


Good movie.  It deals with the interplay of the results of Balzac's unloving and petty mother, his work and his loves.  His love impoverished childhood still affected him greatly and explains most of his considerable problem, such as his over-spending to compensate for his feeling of loss; his consequent chronic indebtedness; his constant writing to prove his worth to himself, his mother and everyone else; and his feverish pursuit of usually older women, some of them seemingly beyond his social class level and impossible to reach.  He was a very unhappy man trying to create the situation where he could finally be happy.  The movie gives some great insight into the famous writer's character.  The acting was great.  Gťrard Depardieu really captured the frenetic life of the physically heavy Honorť de Balzac.  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


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