In normal times it should be fairly easy to separate the content of a certain piece from the circumstances of its creation, but we haven’t exactly been living in normal times of late, have we?
And so it wouldn’t feel right to describe Arnaud Desplechin’s “Deception,” his Philip Roth adaptation that screened on Tuesday as part of Cannes’ new Cannes Premiere sidebar, as “airless” without mentioning that the film was made during France’s long national lockdown last year.
The French director had long dreamed of adapting Roth’s slim 1990 novel, but never thought realizing those dreams was entirely likely – the text, after all, was nothing but snippets of dialogue with little more by way of organizing structures than periods and commas.
COVID restrictions thus proved rather fortuitous for a film shot entirely in a studio. Save for one scene, it never featured more than two actors in the frame, and one of those was made up entirely of dialogue. In other words – done on the cheap.
Well, maybe not too cheap, because “Deception” does boast handsome production values, and that’s a testament to Desplechin’s directorial skill, and to the skills of his crew. But while the film’s a joy to look at, it’s an awful slog to actually watch, droning on for 105 minutes of fourth-generation Rothian barbs, first translated into French, then translated into dialogue and subsequently translated back into subtitles for the non-French viewer.
As American expat Philip and his unnamed British mistress, actors Denis Podalydès and Léa Seydoux perform in their native tongue, with the film simply anticipating that viewers accept the linguistic dissonance as an implicit buy-in. Same deal for actors Anouk Grinberg, Emmanuelle Devos, Rebecca Marder, and Madalina Constantin, who round out the cast as other women in Philip’s life, all playing off a not-too-convincing Podalydès on days when Seydoux presumably wasn’t needed on set.
If the whole thing feels entirely too theatrical, that might have something to do with Desplechin’s artistic headspace of late. Just before 2020’s last lockdowns, he mounted a stage adaptation of “Angels in America” at Paris’ most prestigious theater, while taking in another director’s adaptation of his film “A Christmas Tale” earlier that year.
More than anything else, “Deception” feels like a snapshot of a certain artist’s interests and preoccupations taken at a very unique point in time, and it seems likely to occupy a place in his filmography not terribly dissimilar to its source text. “Deception,” as a novel and as a film, offers a curio for obsessives, a postcard for archivists, and a not-too-interesting bump in the road for everyone else.