Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"Desplechin eases us into the goings-on without sacrificing any of Roth’s complicated and thorny subject matter." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

“I’m 33 and I won’t say my name” states Léa Seydoux’s character at the start of Arnaud Desplechin’s labyrinthine Deception (Tromperie), adapted with Julie Peyr from the novel by Philip Roth. The woman says that she met Philip (Denis Podalydès) in London. London and New York will be the physical and spiritual locations of the tale, as a short introduction that makes you think of Woody Allen’s heyday, informs. The music by Desplechin’s longtime collaborator Grégoire Hetzel perfectly accompanies and subtly comments on the shifts in mood. We see the couple. He asks her to close her eyes and describe the room. Could this be a therapy session, we may think. No, he is testing how perceptive she is.

The terra-cotta-coloured walls, the baseball on his desk, the shelves with books by Heinrich Heine and Hannah Arendt, “only Jewish books” as she notes - this is the realm of the writer protagonist in Roth’s novel and the film. Whereas the book begins with “The-Lovers-Dreaming-About-Running-Away -Together Questionnaire” and the characters remain unnamed, Desplechin eases us into the goings-on without sacrificing any of Roth’s complicated and thorny subject matter.

“When I met you, you were ripe” says Podalydès’s Philip to his younger mistress. A line that sets off all the alarm bells, for, I suppose, many of us. But then Seydoux responds. “No, I was rotting on the floor under a tree.” Her supreme delivery makes all the difference. It rescues the line, the lover, and catapults the film to another level of honesty. Thus is the power of great acting.

Deception, despite COVID restrictions and, as Arnaud told me, a very low budget, looks great (cinematography by Yorick Le Saux). From Pillow Talk split screen moments, to stylised white-canvas stage settings, it works as the cinematic representation of a fractured writer’s notebook. The costumes (by Jürgen Doering) feel Eighties (Roth’s novel was published in 1990) and conservative. At the same time, the big camel coat and plaid costume or the white pleated skirt with black cardigan look fresh and original on Seydoux. She blushes when he talks to her, she needs solitude, she looks tired and she always tells the truth.

After chapter one, which takes place in autumn, the film moves on to Prague (shown in back projection for a Hitchcock feel) as a woman (Madalina Constantin) talks of being nothing but “a little Czech girl” who was treated as though she were a prostitute. In an office with cyan walls she speaks about being scared, and the attempts to recruit her for espionage on both sides of the Cold War, because of her language skills. She refused, lost her library job, married in ’78, “stupid me”, to get to England, where she didn’t fit. Her education and being a Czech refugee left her in limbo.

“I have no place here, none at all” is a sentence that is suitable for many of the women depicted in Roth’s universe, not only those in Deception. It is honourable, this recognition by Desplechin, who follows the strand of the women’s utopia (in its original meaning as no-place) to another character as well. A former lover in New York, played by Emmanuelle Devos, is very ill. When she states to Philip on the phone that “a call from my father makes the cancer worthwhile” it expresses less gallows humour than a true and sad emotional state. Devos gives again a bravura performance. Her character, based on Roth’s lover Janet Hobhouse, who wrote a memoir, The Furies, also has not found her place in this world.

With winter, the film returns to Léa and London, and the above-mentioned questionnaire finds its spot. “Would you expect to be told the truth if you demanded it?” “What are your real feelings about Jews?” “Do you like what I wear?” The array is startling, and Roth makes it difficult to tell when the American 59-year-old Jewish writer is talking and when his 20-plus years younger gentile British actress mistress, played by Seydoux in the film. “I was young, needy, there, and English,” she sums it up and cries. With the changes to a balmier season troubles begin to brew anew.

More characters enter and fade, such as Czech director Ivan (Miglen Mirtchev) and a female student (Rebecca Marder, star of Sandrine Kiberlain’s A Radiant Girl) who puts Philip on trial in an impressive sequence of reckoning. We also get to see Philip with his wife (Anouk Grinberg) who found his notebook with all the exchanges we have seen. “She doesn’t exist,” he insists about the lover and all the others too. “She is only words.”

How do we love? We can never really choose how we want to be loved and the honest look at it is disturbing. Desplechin is excellent at leaving questions intact. “I saw. I saw. It’s such a strange story.” “I know. No one would believe it.”

Reviewed on: 24 Mar 2022
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Deception packshot
An American novelist living for a time in London converses with his wife, his mistress, and other female characters he may have dreamed up.

Director: Arnaud Desplechin

Writer: Arnaud Desplechin and Julie Peyr, based on the book by Philip Roth

Starring: Denis Podalydès, Léa Seydoux, Emmanuelle Devos, Anouk Grinberg, Miglen Mirtchev, Rebecca Marder, Madalina Constantin

Year: 2021

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: France

Streaming on: MUBI

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