Harlan Jacobson reports from The Cannes Film Festival 2021: Arnaud Desplechin's Deception

CANNES, Wednesday July 21 –
By Harlan Jacobson

 Arnaud Desplechin’s Deception, which showed in the new, non-competitive Cannes Premieres section, is everything you wanted to know about Philip Roth and more. Way more. At least more than I wanted to know, even though I confess to buying The Outlaw Blake Bailey’s Roth biography, when his publisher, Norton, stepped away from it under pressure over complaints by women about Bailey. Roth was such a skunk, the argument went, he approved the guy for a reason. I have no intention of reading the book but bought it the moment it was clear I wouldn’t be able to, mostly as a cheap speculative investment that I might flip for a quick killing that I could also disguise as a moral stand against the current Criminal Artist squad roaming American campuses.

Coming to this latest film from Desplechin, I have liked some of his previous work alright (The Sentinel, Kings & Queen, Esther Kahn, My Golden Days], nothing more. My Sex Life… Or How I Got into An Argument is both germane and more fun. I come to this one, however, with a chip on my shoulder: Why is it that when Access Hollywood drills down on the private lives of Hollywood and who just fucked over who, anyone who has the sense God gave geese holds their nose, or bill, but when it’s the interminable entanglements of a writer it’s positioned as scholarship or, god forbid, Art? Arnaud is on to something, though: it turns out Roth may have been born a Newark Jew, Weequahic High School class of 1950, but based on his history of amour fou--and endless, endless, endless talking about it — he was actually French. Who knew? Which explains why Desplechin made this, in French, because yoo-hoo, amour fou is what they do, Jew.

Denis Podalydès, a stage actor at Comédie-Francaise, is Philip, we assume the Roth part, although considerably more sparrow-like than Roth’s increasingly falcon-like dimension as he aged. Off he flies, and we with him, to feast on a host of female characters that either have real life analogs or whom the Roth inside the film may have conjured to continue the fascinating conversation he’s having mostly with himself about Love and other minor verities.

Some of the women characters go unnamed or named generically. Given the contentiousness of Roth’s love life on display in his 1990 novel that serves as the source here, you can supply the reasons as legal or spite. This frog dissection commences with Anouk Grinberg as The Wife in London 1987 (predating his marriage to Claire Bloom), getting her bearings having an affair with an American expat writer, just as Roth is giving Wilt the Stilt a run for his money in points scored. Thence on to Emmanuelle Devos as Rosalie, dying of cancer, Madalina Constantin, as Jana, the Czech iron curtain jumper during his Prague period, and the ubiquitous Lea Seydoux, as The English Lover, who can’t make any more sense of her loveless marriage than whatever it is he’s doing with his. She’s the most prominent in this tête a teat of The Girls Half His Age At Best [modeled on take your pick: Ann Mudge, Lucy Warner, Barbara Sproul, none of the above], the spoils of his victory in the culture war. He louses that relationship up, too. Or maybe like the source, I made her up.

For Frenchmen like Desplechin, talking about the sport is better than the sport. It’s the only reason to play the sport in the first place. To understand the life of the artist on display in Desplechin’s Deception, you don’t need Roth, and you really don’t need him in French. You can go louse up your own life and, like that American woman writer, Nora Ephron, said, take notes.