Arnaud Desplechin returns to the Cannes Film Festival with Deception (Tromperie), a self-indulgent Philip Roth adaptation that’s only marginally better than 2017’s derided Ismael’s Ghosts. One of the late Roth’s most openly personal novels, it details a string of affairs conducted by Jewish-American writer “Philip,” here played by French actor Denis Podalydes, speaking French. In clearly delineated chapters, he ruminates on a long-term affair with an English actress (Léa Seydoux). Known as The English Lover, she also speaks French. We’ve seen enough films where German characters speak with heavily-accented English, for example, so this choice feels excusable. But it does undermine the script’s many references to cultural identity. Perhaps it’s meant to play with them, but as the chapters wear on and more lovers are revealed, this begins to feel more and more like a French film made by Woody Allen, and not in a good way.
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Roth’s writing is lauded for its wit and insight, but adapted by Desplechin and Julie Peyr, that doesn’t always translate well to the big screen. Characters narrate their actions in a mannered, literary style, analyzing sexual behavior from a POV that feels outdated at best.
Female characters conform to various stereotypes in this Cannes Premiere selection: Rebecca Marder is a bright, beautiful young student whose mental health problems are mined for humor while she’s also being sexualized. She says her problems stem from picking the wrong men, but that Podalydes’ Philip wasn’t one of them. A lover who may be dying of cancer (Emmanuelle Devos) is constantly waiting by the hospital phone for Philip to call and comfort her. At least she has a name, Rosalie. Anouk Grinberg is just The Wife, and when she discovers her husband’s book of erotic affair notes, you kind of wish she’d hit him over the head with it. But no. They have a long, wordy conversation — what else? Desplechin also includes Roth’s chapter in which he is accused of sexist crimes in a courtroom of angry feminists, a meta moment that comes across as defensive and stubborn.
Seydoux’s English Lover is given slightly more space and agency, and she has her fair share of witty lines. There’s an amusing scene in which she and Philip take turns to ask each other personal, direct questions — he notes them down to be answered at a later date, that we never see. It’s a lively exchange that has more energy than many of the film’s more navel-gazing moments, as she and Philip discuss death, sex and the politics of having an affair.
When the conversation strays to literature, it’s more engaging, including The Student’s take on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. In fact, a picture of Kafka hangs in Philip’s study, where he conducts his affairs. Some conversations take place in other, decorative locations, from theatrical sets to mysteriously empty London pubs — this was filmed during lockdown, to be fair. All the departments do a good job, from cast to costumes to cinematography this has the sheen of arthouse class. But it doesn’t have the depth you’d hope for.
While partly inspired by current restrictions, Desplechin has resurrected a dinosaur of a project that is anything but current when it comes to its sexual politics. But even putting that aside, it’s the story of a character who’s self-obsessed and self-important, sleeping with someone who mirrors all that back to him — which, after an hour or so, isn’t all that interesting.
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