Deception should have been prime, loopy material for Desplechin, but instead remains frustratingly staid, only occasionally capturing the spark of his more personal material.
A long pursued passion project, Arnaud Desplechin’s latest picture adapts Philip Roth’s 1990 slippery, erotic novel, Deception, into cinematic form for the first time. The late Jewish-American writer’s work has defined the contemporary U.S. literature canon extensively, and yet, few have really figured how to translate him to the screen, with much of his hefty bibliography unadapted, and, for the few that were, generally underwhelming. Though Roth has confounded the likes of Robert Benton and Ewan McGregor, Desplechin is an ideal match for his material, both artists fond of indulging convoluted narrative structures, mischievous autofiction, and a paralleling of the romantic and conspiratorial.
Up till now, Desplechin has largely kept to telling bits and pieces of his own (heavily dramatized) autobiography via onscreen avatars Paul Dédalus and Ismaël Vuillard (both played by Mathieu Amalric) for over two decades now, with the exception of his masterpiece Esther Kahn, an adaptation of an obscure Arthur Symons short story. Lacking that film’s warmth and directness, Deception ultimately has more in common with Desplechin’s most recent films — Dédalus adventure My Golden Days, and Ismaël’s Ghosts; both literarily-minded in their own right and beguiled by the point at which the line between artist and persona begins to lose definition. Notable as the first novel in which Roth uses his own name instead of ascribing the perspective to barely fictionalized stand-in Nathan Zuckerman, Deception finds a faithful recounting in its filmic adaptation, built from a series of discussions between the author (Denis Podalydès) and his younger British mistress (Léa Seydoux). Taking place immediately before and after sex, the conversations between these two ex-pat lovers are flowery yet inert, Seydoux’s mistress commanding the scenes through voiceover with Roth relegated to the position of participant, the two spending the majority of their time together commiserating over their failing marriages. Deception breaks up these dialogues with chapters following Roth’s relationship with former paramours, in particular, Rosalie (Emmanuelle Devos), who reconnects with him as she begins cancer treatment, their shared history and the severity of her illness initiating an uneasy social dynamic for the passively selfish writer.
A trying watch for much of the runtime, as a result, Deception rewards its patient audience eventually, the detached approach to chronicling Roth’s morally dubious behavior undercut by a pivotal scene with his wife (Anouk Grinberg) where Podalydès’ performance turns explosive, and it suddenly becomes unclear what the “deception” of the title exactly refers to. Desplechin pulled off a similar trick in My Golden Days, both films concerning the biases of The Author and autobiography as a deceitful practice, but while that film did so with a verve and wit missing here, Deception settles for a dry and oppositional experience lacking the goofiness (some unexpected irises at least) that sets its director’s best work apart from his contemporaries (though it nonetheless serves as an effective and knowing take on Roth — much better than what we usually get). On paper, adapting Roth’s persona-blurring text as a means of further exploring his own thematic interest in self-invention reads as prime, loopy material for Desplechin to further his perpetual self-mythologizing, but Deception is frustratingly staid, only occasionally capturing the spark of his more “personal” output.
You can stream Arnaud Desplechin’s Deception on Mubi beginning on May 20.
Originally published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 8.