by David Katz
- CANNES 2021: French master Arnaud Desplechin creates that rare thing: a good film based on a Philip Roth novel
Roubaix is to Newark as Paul Dédalus is to Nathan Zuckerman, but maybe not, in fact, as France is to the United States. We could go on, but Arnaud Desplechin’s Deception [+see also:
interview: Arnaud Desplechin
film profile], adapted from Philip Roth’s 1990 novel, is something of an “event” film for a certain type of neurotic, probably male cinephile, about as exciting as when Paul Thomas Anderson made Pynchon’s Inherent Vice in 2014 (although funnily enough, the latter two’s sensibilities are more divergent). It is pleasing to report that it is a good piece of work, creative in that beautifully enchanting Desplechin way; it has been made to withstand multiple viewings, and will be of vast interest to the many (likely also very neurotic) Philip Roth obsessives globally. The film was shown in Cannes' new Cannes Premiere section.
In Desplechin’s Deception, Philip Roth (the novel was the first time he used “himself” [or is it?] as a character in his work) becomes not Philippe, but Philip, The American Writer, incarnated fairly brilliantly by Denis Podalydès. The other main character, Philip’s English Lover, enchantingly played by Léa Seydoux, is unnamed in both book and film – and here begins the sticking point that the film carefully tackles. Unlike other authors and artists who have been literally “cancelled”, Roth’s output and reputation have just about stayed afloat, as we carefully examine the work of problematic, potentially abusive, mainly male creatives. Deception, nothing if not self-aware, both leans into and critiques this archetypal author-bastard character, and comes away with a fine tribute to Roth, careless love (to be romantic!), and maybe even Desplechin himself. Notably, one of the greatest figures of his regular acting troupe, Emmanuelle Devos, has a proper name that stays intact: Rosalie.
The “plot”, such as it is, is simple to describe, but this is a complex film, with so many audiovisual and thematic levels overlapping and interlocking – and “complex” has a subtly different meaning to “complicated”. The married Philip, like many writers whose income stems solely from that, has a writing studio separate from his home or office – and as you can imagine, not a lot of time is spent writing. The primary visitor is Seydoux’s character, and whilst the sex is plentiful, the talk is just as abundant – it is a “lover’s discourse”. All kinds of pertinent topics are broached, in dialogue directly taken from the book’s French translation by Maurice Rambaud: fidelity, infidelity, jokes, teasing, the spirit, the mind, and of course, Jews, Judaism and Jewishness. Desplechin helps make it a tribute to love, the relationships that stir and haunt the soul, rather than an apology for predation.
The novel, like cinema, has a vast history: it’s associated with storytelling – but in more high-minded guises, with much else as well. Roth was a superb storyteller, with a lethal sense of timing and plot. The disappointment of this film is that Desplechin can’t quite replicate how powerful the “twist” is in the novel, leaving the movie feeling a bit unsatisfying as it closes, although the final shot is poetic. Nonetheless, it grows in the mind superbly. More Roth films please, and with great directors making them?
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