Arnaud Desplechin’s film was screened at Cannes in 2021 and released in cinemas in some territories in early 2022. It is now available to stream on MUBI. I presume that this means that it is unlikely to appear in cinemas in the UK and US. If so that would be a shame but not perhaps unusual. Deception is an adaptation of the 1990 novel by Philip Roth and presenting such a text in the aftermath of #MeToo does raise a number of questions. Roth, who died in 2018, became more controversial as a writer towards the end of his career as attitudes towards gender relationships changed. As a novelist he adopted several identities, each of which was a version of himself and Deception presents us with ‘Philip’, an American writer who spends time living in London in 1987 attempting to to write a new novel. His practice is to reflect on his previous extra-marital affairs. Each day he leaves the house rented for himself and his wife and visits a small flat intended as a study. Here he meets a younger Englishwoman. The three other women, besides his wife, who feed into his thoughts include an ex-lover and friend in the US, a young Czech exile and a former student from his teaching days at a university. The novel he is writing is dialogue heavy and appears to make use of his conversations with these women. Are they ‘real’ conversations or a product of his imagination?
1987 is two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is important in terms of Philip’s interest in Eastern Europe, but otherwise the only markers of the time are the phone sets and a red telephone box. Desplechin had wanted to adapt the novel for many years and had actually had a conversation about it with Roth after a reference on the DVD of Desplechin’s 2004 film Kings & Queen. He returned to the idea during lockdown which made him think of the writer’s room which allows Roth’s ‘Philip’ to shut out the world. The Press Notes for Deception include interviews with Desplechin and his two stars, Léa Seydoux as ‘the English lover’ and Denis Podalydès which I read after the screening. I was struck by Desplechin’s assertion that ‘realist cinema’ locks characters into their own little box whereas he likes the idea of the writer’s room where the characters can be ‘free’. This then translates to the director’s approach to the adaptation and his collaboration with his co-writer Julie Peyr and his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Despite the English setting, the cast are all leading French actors and the dialogue is in French. The ‘room’ is re-imagined in different ways over the narrative, starting on stage in the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris. We never see Philip travelling and his memories of meeting a young Czech woman are played out against black and white film footage, back-projected. During the long scenes of interaction with the English lover (who is never named), the camerawork includes many close-ups and effects like iris-masking.
My own preference is for realist/sociological detail but I do enjoy the use of fantasy and effects in scenes so I was quite prepared to follow Philip’s thoughts in this way. I have read some of Roth’s works, but mainly the earlier novels so I didn’t have too much difficulty with the idea of a writer who plays around with his own identity in his texts. The most concrete issue of Philip’s identity is arguably his ‘Jewishness’ which is discussed at various points including his interest in other Jewish novelists, his family history which he traces back to his family roots in Galicia in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the profile of modern Israel. He also states that English Jewry is ‘soft’ compared to the more vigorous American Jewish culture. It’s at this point that I did find it slightly problematic, wondering if this was only Roth’s viewpoint, one invented by ‘Philip’ or whether there was also a French perspective in there somewhere? ‘Englishness’ appears only in terms of the pub where the lovers meet or complaints about the weather.
What to make of the world of Philip, the thoughts in his head and his interactions and memories with the four women? Is there a misogynist charge? The film narrative is divided into chapters, one of which, ‘The Trial’, is a theatrical staging of the case against Philip conducted solely by women. Desplechin says this is a pure Kafka sequence and Philip defends himself against all charges. Apart from the director and his lead actor, most of the other significant figures in the film are women. At this point I should say that the five women who play the four lovers and the wife and the women in the court give excellent performances and whatever I do think of the film overall, the actors (including the great Emmanuelle Devos ) are a major source of pleasure alongside the camerawork and art direction. The music by Grégoire Hetzel is also very good. The central question is really about the extent to which Léa Seydoux bought into the script. She is literally the most exposed character in the film with some of the most provocative lines, all delivered with panache and heart. If I have any doubt it is only about Roth’s view of the world. This is a film narrative which plays out within the sealed world of the writer’s head, with only tantalising glimpses into the characters’ relationships to events in the wider world outside. The lover has a young daughter who is never seen and an unhappy marriage, so perhaps she wants to just enjoy the hours away from her family or is her motherhood simply not relevant in the context of her afternoons with Philip? The lovers do discuss what having a child can mean at one point but just as we don’t know what Philip’s wife does while he is away in his room, that’s as far as it goes.
I think I surprised myself by enjoying the film more than I thought I might. That may be mostly because of the performances, the direction and the presentation. Léa Seydoux and Denis Podalydès are a joy to watch at work.