From the clumsy crudeness of “Portnoy’s Complaint” to the well-mannered dullness of “The Human Stain,” to a number of other titles that have eluded our collective cultural memory, the late author Philip Roth has not had a particularly successful track record when it comes to big-screen adaptations of his often-controversial novels. In most cases, the filmmakers have merely recreated scenes from his novels without capturing the distinct authorial voice that alternately captivated and enraged readers from his first big success with the 1959 novella Goodbye Columbus until his final work, 2010’s Nemesis. To give “Deception,” the latest attempt to bring Roth to the screen, a little bit of credit, it does come closer than most to rendering his prose stylings into cinematic terms. But it does so in a film so lifeless and inert from a dramatic standpoint that few viewers are likely to notice or even care.
Based on the 1990 novel of the same name, “Deception” is centered on, of all things, an abrasive-yet-celebrated American author named Philip Roth (Denis Podalydès) who has relocated to London despite his conviction that the city is populated entirely by antisemites. The bulk of the story revolves around his affair with an unnamed and unhappily married English actress (Léa Seydoux). Lest you get too thrilled by that prospect, most of their time together consists of post-coital conversations in which familiar thematic tropes of Roth’s begin to come out and we are often left to wonder about what the exact nature of their relationship might be after all. When she isn’t around, though, there are other women for Philip to talk to or think back on, including an old friend in America dying of cancer, a former student of his that he once had an affair with, and a Czech woman he met during the heady days of the Prague Spring in 1968. Oh yeah, there is also Roth’s wife, who discovers a notebook in which he goes on at length about the actress and becomes convinced that the passion of his words must mean that he’s having an affair—after all, he doesn’t write or talk about her like that anymore. He claims that the woman is nothing more than a figment of his literary imagination and that she should just relax.
“Deception” was directed and co-written by celebrated French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, who has long hoped to adapt Roth’s book. Considering his apparent admiration for the source and the fact that a number of his films have employed some of the same thematic concerns as Roth’s oeuvre, it would seem to be an ideal match of filmmaker and material and it is therefore baffling to see it go so wrong in so many ways. As you will recall, “Deception” is set in London and the two main characters are an American and an Englishwoman. However, despite all of that, the film is in French and cast entirely with French actors, a move that inevitably eliminates any of the cross-cultural attitudes and conflicts between the characters in the original story. If Desplechin and co-writer Julie Peyr had simply made the two characters French and filtered Roth’s concerns through a different cultural lens, it might have been interesting. On the other hand, if the movie just went about doing this without calling attention to it, we in the audience could have just grown to accept the conceit like how we accept all of the Russians suddenly speaking English in “The Hunt for Red October.” However, this film keeps having Roth and his lover making references to their nationalities. It just becomes distracting more than anything else.
Even this bizarre artistic conceit might have been forgiven, or at least tolerated, if the story and the characters were of any particular interest but Desplechin strikes out here as well. “Deception” is pretty much non-stop talk but as the conversations go on and on, they’re more like stilted acting exercises between two actors meant to be playing characters with an intimate history but who seem to have only met five minutes before doing the scene. There’s never a single moment in which we ever genuinely believe the feelings and emotions between them. There is no tangible sense of passion, anger, regret, longing or any of the things that sentient human beings (even literary geniuses) would theoretically be experiencing—every conversation has the anesthetized feel of a television commercial.
The actors look lost here for the most part. Although Podalydès sort of looks like the kind of guy who might buttonhole you at a party to describe his thoughts on Roth at length, whether you asked him or not, he’s too bland to be convincing in a part that requires a more pronounced sense of misanthropy and mordant wit than he is able to muster. Seydoux is, of course, one of the most electrifying performers in current French cinema. But if you didn’t know that already, you’d hardly be able to discern it from her mostly listless work here—in an appropriately meta-fictional twist, she seems as bored with the proceedings as viewers will almost certainly be.
If you’ve never read the works of Philip Roth, “Deception” is likely to come across as an absolutely baffling exercise in tedium that has nothing to say about anything in particular and won’t shut up about it. If you are familiar with his work, it might prove to be slightly more interesting, but it will also serve as a reminder that Roth is one of those writers whose talents simply do not translate easily to other forms of media. On the page, “Deception” took a seemingly simple story and turned it into a complex house of cards. On the screen, all we get are a pile of cards that no one has bothered to shape or transform into anything of value, meaning, or interest.
Now playing in select theaters.
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