In Arnaud Desplechin’s “Deception” (“Tromperie”), one character’s husband is described as “passionate about dazzling, interesting women.” In this adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, one can’t help but wish the director shared the character’s interest. Instead, Desplechin and his film seem to have a perverse and single-minded fixation not on “dazzling, interesting” women, but lost, tragic ones—women who can gravitate toward and glom onto Philip (Denis Podalydès), an inexplicably francophone version of the author, who lavishes the attention.
In the stuffy and garrulous adaptation, a rotating cast of women populates Philip’s imagination: There’s an unnamed English actor (also inexplicably francophone, played by Léa Seydoux), whose affair with Philip is a convenient escape from a languishing marriage with an American novelist. Then there’s Rosalie (Emmanuelle Devos), an old flame who’s dying of cancer in a New York hospital room. Rounding out the tiresome troupe of teary women is a Czech woman whom Philip met once in Prague and a former student and lover of his (Rebecca Marder), now beset by mental health problems.
Though “Deception” is adapted from a Roth novel, the experience of watching it feels more like stopping and starting episodes of a humdrum soap opera. Desplechin divides the film into thirteen confusingly titled subsections and employs an excess of iris shots to delineate transitions between a handful of vignettes, each seeming longer and more laborious than the last. There’s little art to the slipshod editing, which pairs sequences together that share little in common beyond their suffering women. The real deception at play here is for anyone who may have watched in hopes of finding a considered treatment of human lives and is instead left with one man’s tired solipsism.
“Deception” is, after all, about the power of male fantasy, though it rarely stops to problematize that perspective. When it does, it does so in an ill-conceived, defensive way, as if preemptively manufacturing the rebuttal to a review just like this one. Before a tribunal of angry women, Philip is interrogated by an angry attorney, who demands to know why he hates women. “The objectives of an equal-gender society aren’t mine,” he spits back, then protests that Shakespeare once wrote women as shrews, too.
That’s a bold claim to make for a character constructed to garner our sympathy, so it’s a bit odd that the film seems to share Philip’s philosophy. The tribunal scene seems to indicate that Desplechin is at least partially self-aware of these flaws, perhaps even playing into them to make a point. Even so, the stereotypical women in “Deception” aren’t particularly interesting. Stereotypes rarely are. The problems encountered by the women in the film—careless husbands, infidelity, bad boyfriends—are trite and unstimulating. Even Seydoux’s character, who feels like the closest approximation to a fully actualized person, is alternately horny or weepy, both in ways that cater to her lover. “I was astonished to see this character so passive,” she remarks after reading the fictionalized version of herself; now, after all, she feels so “positive.” Perhaps it’s a funny translation since the natural antonym of passive in American English is not positive but rather active. Though Seydoux’s character may have improved on both fronts by this point, “Deception” never really lets us see her be either.
Philip’s solipsism plays on various planes, including a bizarre, all-encompassing Frenchness that applies regardless of who or where the characters are. Real Philip Roth was American, and Claire Bloom, the actress on whom Seydoux’s character is likely based, is English; yet the characters all speak French, even to service workers and hospital nurses in New York and London. This is another indication that the film’s main events happen not in reality as we know it but in Philip’s head. But the fact remains that Philip’s head is a tiresome place to be. Characters are constantly trading insipid remarks and thrilling each other with their perceived intellect, but their intimacy feels like a closed circuit. The spark never reaches the audience. [D]