Monday, 27 July 2015


“Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.” - Mark Twain

Honoré de Balzac (20 May 1799 – 18 August 1850) was a French novelist and playwright. His magnum opus was a sequence of short stories and novels collectively entitled La Comédie Humaine, which presents a panorama of French life in the years after the 1815 fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Owing to his keen observation of detail and unfiltered representation of society, Balzac is regarded as one of the founders of realism in European literature. He is renowned for his multifaceted characters, who are morally ambiguous.

His writing influenced many subsequent novelists such as Marcel Proust, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Edgar Allan Poe, Eça de Queirós, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert, Benito Pérez Galdós, Marie Corelli, Henry James, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Italo Calvino, and philosophers such as Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. 

Many of Balzac’s works have been made into or have inspired films, and they are a continuing source of inspiration for writers, filmmakers and critics. An enthusiastic reader and independent thinker as a child, Balzac had trouble adapting to the teaching style of his grammar school. His wilful nature caused trouble throughout his life and frustrated his ambitions to succeed in the world of business. When he finished school, Balzac was an apprentice in a law office, but he turned his back on the study of law after wearying of its inhumanity and banal routine.

Before and during his career as a writer, he attempted to be a publisher, printer, businessman, critic, and politician; he failed in all of these efforts. La Comédie Humaine reflects his real-life difficulties, and includes scenes from his own experience. Balzac suffered from health problems throughout his life, possibly brought on by scant attention to proper nutrition, strict nightly rest, or daily heart-healthy exercise. His relationship with his family was often strained by financial and personal difficulties, and he ended several friendships over critical reviews. In 1850 he married Ewelina Hańska, his longtime love; he died five months later.

Such a man, whose life resembled a novel, could hardly not inspire a biopic… We watched an old French telemovie at the weekend, which attempted to present a patchwork of Balzac’s life. And patchwork it certainly was, however, one could see evidence the rich fabrics from which the patches were selected.

The 1999 film, directed by Josée Dayan and a screenplay by Didier Decoin, was entitled “Balzac” and starred Gérard Depardieu, Jeanne Moreau, Virna Lisi, Fanny Ardant, Gert Voss and Katja Riemann. This was originally made for TV in France and as one would expect from the stellar cast and demanding audience, it was exceptionally well-acted and pretty faithful to the life of Balzac.

The film represents 19th century France beautifully with excellent costumes, sets, locations, props and atmosphere. Depardieu gives a grand performance as Balzac (and one overlooks his superficial likeness to the real Balzac). The screenplay examines mainly Balzac's many relationships with various important women in his life. Jeanne Moreau is wonderful as Balzac’s mother, Virna Lisi and Fanny Ardant as the two women he loved to excess, while Katja Riemann plays the flightly and whimsical paramour that he dallied with for a while. Gert Voss plays a supporting role as Victor Hugo, while the rest of the cast do a sterling job of supporting the action.

The film is a useful overview of Balzac’s life, and the word patchwork comes to mind once again. One comes away from this movie, wishing to learn more of the man not through reading a comprehensive biography, but rather to read more of his works. Balzac included much autobiographical material and distillations of his various interaction with the people in his life in his novels – reading the novels tells us a lot about the man and having watched the movie, some of the complexities of his character have been revealed. Good to watch, kept us engaged for the whole 200 minutes or so…

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