review for Balzac on AllMovie

Balzac (1999)
by Richie Unterberger review

This three-and-a-half-hour television production, based on Honoré de Balzac's life, is a pretty straightforward docudrama that happens to feature several world-class actors. Due mostly to them, it's above average as TV docudramas go, but doesn't do full justice either to Balzac's life or to the actors involved. Gérard Depardieu, as usual, totally immerses himself in his character as the protagonist, an outsize man with equally outsize appetites for food, women, spending, and above all writing. Fanny Ardant -- who, it's worth remembering, also played alongside Depardieu as a lover in François Truffaut's The Woman Next Door, almost 20 years before this movie -- is satisfactory as the cool, noncommittal countess. Jeanne Moreau is the most notable of the three leads, both because by the late 1990s she wasn't getting nearly as many star turns as Depardieu or Ardant, and because she plays Balzac's mother with chilling, gravel-voiced malice. Still, the movie doesn't shed a great deal of light upon Balzac's actual writing and artistic motivations, and while his star-crossed romance with the countess adds some tension to the narrative, the relationship's too sporadic to engage us as much as the tragic ending would apparently wish. Additionally, though the end of the first part builds to a climax with the onset of an oncoming duel, the suspense is so limply and quickly resolved at the beginning of the second part that the whole situation seems like a contrived tease to rope viewers into watching the next episode.