Deception review – Arnaud Desplechin’s unbearably twee take on Philip Roth
The fey movies of Arnaud Desplechin are indulgences that I can sometimes indulge. I had a sweet tooth for his glutinous A Christmas Tale from 2008 and loved his mysterious fantasy Kings and Queen (2004) and intriguing Edward Bond adaptation Playing “In the Company of Men” from the year before that. Desplechin has been a Cannes favourite for so long that it’s almost impossible to imagine the festival without one of his dreamy-jaunty jeux d’ésprit on the menu.
But this latest film, showing in the new Cannes Premiere section, is just unbearable – like being condescendingly simpered at for an hour and a half: a film full of people smiling knowingly and laughing delightedly at each other’s not-especially-funny-or-interesting remarks, and it’s all the more insufferable for things the film gets fundamentally and structurally wrong.
This is a chamber drama-style film shot under lockdown conditions, adapted (by Desplechin with Julie Peyr) from Philip Roth’s 1990 meta-fiction Deception, in which he introduces a writer character actually called Philip Roth, as opposed to Zuckerman or Kepesh. From his rented office-study in London (a place naturally tailor-made for assignations) the great Jewish-American author ruminates on and pursues the erotic, melancholic and imaginative possibilities of his affairs with many women, including an American who is now back in New York dying of cancer, a Czech woman he met on one of his Milan-Kundera-style adventures in Prague, a troubled ex-student of his, and most prominently a fascinating and beautiful English stage star, presumably inspired by Roth’s actual wife, Claire Bloom – although she may also have inspired some of the angry, recriminatory scenes with this meta-Roth’s wife, in which “Roth” evasively insists that the descriptions she has discovered in his notebook are all fictional. He also longs to confront all the bores, puritans, philistines and antisemites who have traduced him and his work.
Desplechin doesn’t change any nationalities. His Roth is still supposed to be American, and the object of his love is still English. But Desplechin casts French people, speaking French. Denis Podalydès plays Roth and Léa Seydoux is the English actor. So the fundamentally important, dramatically savoury difference between them is obliterated. They look like two very elegant French movie stars mouthing well-turned lines of dialogue at each other, while probably thinking about something else. Never for a single moment do they look discomposed by genuine sadness or genuine desire. The thick varnish of stagey sophistication never cracks. There is a scene in which meta-Roth is confronted by a Czech film director (apparently Ivan Passer) for apparently having an affair with the director’s wife and this man actually pulls a gun on him. And yet there is no real dramatic jeopardy, no real jolt of fear or anger; the scene ends with an unearned smirk at the general absurdity of everything.
Above all there is a heavy-handed musical soundtrack that over-emphasises how amusing and yet tragicomic it all is. It’s a waste of Podalydès and Seydoux, and certainly a waste of Emmanuelle Devos who plays the heroically dying ex-lover. By the closing credits, the film is suffering a twee overload.