Rarely have I been able to chart my relationship with a film like Arnaud Desplechin’s Deception. When we spoke in fall 2015 he told me Philip Roth’s slim, dialogue-driven novel was something of a millstone: “Perhaps it’s a book that I will never be able to adapt for the screen, and I know I will regret it for the rest of my days.” You can imagine my thrill at the news, in December 2020, that he pulled it off with Léa Seydoux and Denis Polydalès, but even by these metrics I wasn’t prepared for the film that, by acting as a faithful rendition of Roth’s barely fictional novel (largely dialogue between lovers written as he was engaging in an actual affair), is perhaps (hopefully) the closest we’ll ever get to a Roth biopic—the rare adaptation that adds to its source’s corpus.
Though awaiting U.S. distribution, Deception has screened at Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, during which Desplechin sat down for an extended discussion of Roth, the material, and complications that naturally come with both.
The Film Stage: I don’t expect you to remember this but: we spoke in fall 2015, when you were here for My Golden Days. I’m a massive Philip Roth fan and at the time there was this rumor you wanted to adapt The Counterlife—which wasn’t true.
Arnaud Desplechin: Oh, yeah. Another story with an English woman!
But in fact you wanted to adapt his novel Deception, which you considered one of your greatest dreams, and that not making it would be one of your greatest regrets. Accordingly I was so thrilled—five years later—when word got out that you had secretly adapted the book with Léa Seydoux and Denis Podalydès. I guess I would ask, then, what pushed you towards it. Was it a COVID restriction?
It was the COVID restriction, definitely. I was working when the pandemic appeared and the lockdown in France; I was at my place writing an original script. Usually I’m working with Julie Peyr. She’s staying in Los Angeles so our stations are Skype. I’m used to it because we wrote My Golden Days that way, so it’s not difficult for me. It’s horribly difficult to work on Skype but, you know, I have the habit of it. So I was working on that and I thought “Okay, just after this lockdown it won’t be that easy to shoot Frère et soeur because we have extras, the masks, the crowd. Everyone in the French cinema business is lost, so where can we raise the funds?” I had to have a lighter project and I was looking for something, and I realized… because I wrote a few adaptations of Deception and each one of them were terrible. Really bad.
And I realized that what I was experiencing at home—what we all were experiencing in our loneliness during this moment—was what all the characters of Deception are experiencing. I was locked down in my office, writing, and I was absolutely happy. And there were other people who were locked down in their lives; I’m thinking of the Czech girl who says “I don’t belong to this place.” Now she’s a stupid waitress in a bar or whatever, selling things in a shop, when she wanted to become a publisher or translate books and novels, to write short stories. And now she’s staying in England, she lost everything, and is saying “I didn’t find the right place for me.” We all experience that. And the only one who finds a place on Earth is the writer when he’s in his office. When he’s at home with his wife he doesn’t find it! [Laughs] But when he’s in his office it works.
And so it gave me an entry. And I remember this discussion that I had once—I didn’t know him—with Philip Roth on the phone. He passed two years before, and at last—after 15 years—I understood what he was saying to me on the phone. At last I understood. What he said to me during this phone call was… you know that DVD bonus we did, Emmanuelle Devos and I playing the epilogue of Deception?
Sorry… what is this?
When I was making rehearsals for Kings and Queen I didn’t want to use my lines because I don’t like to rehearse my lines—I prefer to keep them fresh for the shooting—so we were using the epilogue of Deception. I was playing the part of Philip; Emmanuelle Devos was playing the English lover. She was so good and the text was so wonderful that they used it as a bonus in the French DVD edition.
I haven’t seen this.
Philip Roth got it, and that’s how come he called me at my home. He got a DVD with subtitles and I was saying:
“Sir, it’s impossible to do such a film because it’s a period piece. It’s before the fall of the Wall. Plus it’s in England. Plus it’s in New York when he’s visiting his father. Plus he’s in Czechoslovakia when you have the flashbacks. So it’s so fully expansive and I don’t see who would play the parts.”
He said: “No, no, Arnaud. You didn’t get my point. Just do it like that.”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“Don’t ‘sir’ me.”
“Yes, but what do you mean… Mr. Philip? What do you mean?”
“I’m saying just do it how you did it with… what’s her name? Emmanuelle Devos? She’s great. Just do it like that: with a handheld camera and make it tiny. It’s a tiny book. It doesn’t need to have all the sturm und drang. Just do it like that.”
And I thought: “Okay. I am a film director. He is a genius. And he does not understand a thing about films.”
So I proposed it to Julie Peyr: why not go back on the Deception track and see if we can’t find a way? But as Philip Roth said: to do it like that. In France. Here and now. What we have to do is establish the convention so we can imagine she’s in sort of a theater, she’s speaking French, and she’s saying “I’m the English lover of a famous writer.” She says “close your eyes.” She closes her eyes, and suddenly you are in London. And that was it. That’s how come the two things are linked: the line of Philip Roth and the fact that I experienced that kind of loneliness, that exile, that we all experienced during the lockdown.
I never knew you spoke to Roth.
I was terrified.
I couldn’t imagine.
I couldn’t imagine during the phone call. I was so stupid. It was my anniversary this very evening and I was pathetic on the phone. I didn’t get his point, but perhaps did I need—I will say something cruel—the fact that he passed to understand him fully and feel allowed to do it in my way?
I saw the movie back in July and watched it again last night. Each time I’m amazed how much you went for it—I mean, you basically made a Philip Roth biopic.
It’s not just… I don’t think his last name is ever spoken aloud. But Denis looks like him. His office looks like Roth’s office.
Oh, it looks like Roth’s office. Definitely.
During the trial sequence it seems you found the edition of My Life as a Man where “Roth” is featured most prominently.
Were you looking for that cover?
Yeah, yeah, yeah! Yes. I have a wonderful production designer, so he worked on that. Plus, in France he’s really God, so we have so many documentaries about Philip Roth, so many interviews, etc. It’s funny: it’s a thing that I love in his work and… Deception is not a major book, a major novel. It’s more like an essay or something. I think it’s perfect material for a film, but obviously Counterlife is great, it’s astonishing. My Life as a Man, Sabbath’s Theater, Nemesis—absolute masterpieces. But as he says when he’s arguing with his wife: “I need to be part of it.” At one point he’s saying shame is useless for a writer. “I need to soil myself. I need to be dirty. That’s what brings me alive.”
It’s funny, because I saw an interview by Philip Roth recently where he was saying “I wrote that novel because I thought adultery has been the great theme for the books of the 19th century—Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina. And I thought, ‘Why not make a book about adultery in the 20th century?’” So he wrote it that strange way—just bits and pieces of dialogue. That was it. And at one point he thought… he was not cynical, but he liked to express as a cynical guy. He said, “People won’t be in it so I have to call the character Philip. Because I need to be part of it. I will sell books if the character is named Philip.” So you just have one time in the book and in the film when the student is saying “Philip, hand me the ashtray.” His wife is saying “Why don’t you call him Nathan?” And he says “Sorry, this time it’s Philip.”
I reread the book before rewatching the movie and between these experiences I can’t think of another adaptation that is like this—by being so faithful to this text it’s like you’ve transported the material into a 3D image of itself. But at the same time the presence of gesture, facial expression, intonation of line gives such an agency to Seydoux’s character that’s not per se in the book. It’s not quite a counter, but it is a conversation.
It’s funny. When I read the book it was when I was doing My Sex Life. I had a lot of women friends who were working on the film with me and I was offering the book to my comrades and asking the question to a woman: “Is it misogynistic or is it feminist? I have no idea. And I can’t say. I’m a man so I can’t say. So what do you think about that?” And each one of them had a different answer, a different statement, about the book. And I knew, in adapting it, that I would have to fight against the book and for the book to have a statement about that. I think the beauty which is hidden in the book is the fact that each of these women can… because she’s listened to that carefully by the writer. With an absolute attention, without any judgment—any judgment—without requiring them to be bigger than life.
She’s saying, “Anna Karenina, she jumped under a train so she’s the hero of the book.” The English lover has a problem with her cervix and he thinks “it’s a thrill. It’s so interesting.” “I didn’t like to be pregnant.” “That’s wonderful. That’s enough for a book.” He’s not asking them to be more than that. You’re all already great. So I think mainly Léa Seydoux, but the other ones too, are using the writer to recover some of their lost pride. I thought that was the beauty of it. Obviously Philip’s character is not a modernist—he can be a reactionary sometimes—but he’s not a chauvinist. Not at all. Yes, he’s conservative. But he’s listening to them. I love these last lines that she has: “I will write a book about you.” “Who will you be? You will be Calypso.” “No. I will be Homer. I’m the writer of my own life. Because I met you, now I’m able to be the writer of my own life.”
This is what happens with Emmanuelle Devos, too: because she has these phone calls with Philip she can recover part of her pride, of her own life, of… the Czech girl had a miserable life but the guy is listening to her. “Tell me again: what is it to marry a stupid English husband you divorced two years after you escaped Czechoslovakia? I’m fascinated by that.” She says the life of a writer is more interesting. “No, no, no, your life is more interesting than mine.” I thought that was the beauty of it, and I tried, in the adaptation of the book, to highlight these moments—to conquer yourself as a woman rather than have something too polemical.
I’m surprised you didn’t include the book’s Zuckerman scene.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Admittedly I hoped Mathieu Amalric would pop in there.
[Laughs] This time it’s not Amalric because it’s not Zuckerman; this time it’s Philip so it’s Denis. That’s it. That was it. No, Mathieu is a wonderful Nathan—he’s Zuckerman. And there’s something not well-known in the U.S., but Denis does a lot of films and is usually cast for smaller-than-life. Onstage I saw him so many times; he’s playing parts bigger than life. I thought: “it’s the moment for you to play the part for screen, but bigger than life. Make it big.” He’s a wonderful writer. A wonderful writer.
He wrote something like five books about acting. His prose is astonishing. He reads all the books, he reads on CDs the great writers. He’s reading all the time; all the time. I saw him in the wings in theaters. You know, he’s reading—sitting on the chair, putting the book down, entering stage, acting—and when he’s back he’s taking his book and reading again. I knew that, for the part… I didn’t want to bullshit the audience with what a writer is. Not to have any myth about that. Just: what is the common life of a writer? And he knew that. We reproduced the set.
The standing desk. The photo of Kafka.
The baseball signed by Babe Ruth, etc. In all the drawers, all the props were real, and so Denis was in front of that and he could improv. All the gestures are so right because he knows that. It was important for me to show the writing as a work, not as a fantasy, but as a proper work.
Because he’s playing Roth, did he take time to study him—documentaries, books?
Not so much documentaries. He looked at one of them and said “If I’m looking at too much of it I’ll be trying to imitate Philip Roth, which would be a waste of time.” He knew, already, the books of Philip Roth. Léa didn’t know the work of Philip Roth so when I visited her first… it was the day after lockdown because all the cafés were closed, so I had to go to her place. And during the night she read the book and the script and said “Okay, now the problem is I have to promote the James Bond movie, so we have to find the right weeks in my calendar to be able to achieve it.” After that I met Denis. I’d been thinking about him a long, long time because, as I told you, I saw him so many times onstage and knew he could give something, could bring his knowledge of writing. And that was it.
Even having seen Seydoux in a bunch and thinking she’s great, I couldn’t believe her performance here. There’s a fearlessness that’s so rare.
It’s incredible. It’s incredible.
Sometimes actors get called “fearless,” but so rarely it’s true. Of course there’s plenty nudity and love scenes, but compared to some of the dialogue she has to deliver, which is so intense and so frank… how was leading her into that?
I wrote it… it’s a thing that I never write for actors. I cast them after the process because I would be afraid to underwrite my characters to make them easier for the actors. But when we started with Julie Peyr on the adaptation I said, “This one is for her. It’s for Léa.” We just did Roubaix together, and in Oh Mercy! she was playing a part. When I visited her this afternoon just after lockdown I told her “I don’t want you to play a part.” It was the same question that I had 20 years ago on My Sex Life: I’m a guy so I don’t have the answers. What I want is to be informed about what it is to be a woman when you are too old. What is it to be a woman when you feel that you are too young? What is it to be a woman when you feel glorious? What is it when you feel miserable? What is it when you love children? What is it when you don’t like at all to be pregnant? I want to have information about that. I want you to speak to find your own voice, and not to play a character.
So usually I play all the characters on the set and I misbehave. It’s written in all the guides that you don’t have to act in front of actors; I do all the acting in front of actors. But with this part I never acted in front of her. I was saying, “No, it’s your voice. I want to record and to show and to film your voice. Your way of looking at things, etc. We have to discuss it together and perhaps I can help you here and there with this line, which is difficult, but the result of it will be your life.” That’s why this film is so precious for Léa: she felt she gave something, a part of her, and that was the gift that we shot each day. She’s not like that in all the films, but she’s so unpredictable—because she doesn’t know what she will do the next day. She does not know. She’s obsessed with the right note, to find the right note—the musical note. So she’s saying “I didn’t find it; I have to do another take. I didn’t find it; I have to do another take.”
For Denis it was a shock, and he had to respond to it and improvise. We had this scene in the corridor where he’s saying something that could call chauvinist—I don’t think it is, but you could and I wouldn’t be upset with that. He’s saying, “I met you and you were just like a fruit on the floor, under the tree,” and she says, “It’s not true. I was rotten under the tree. That’s how you found me.” So we did one take like that. She said, “No, let me do something.” No… it was the first take. She walked in the corridor, he says “you were that fruit under the tree,” and she bursts in tears and said the line. “Okay: cut, finish, we don’t need the reverse. This is done.” She was speaking for herself, about her own feelings, and not playing a character. That’s the gift that she gave us.
It’s maybe the most powerful moment in the entire movie.
Yeah. It’s killing me each time I could see it on the editing table. It’s killing me. I think the beauty of it, too, which is quite cruel and very rough: does she love the writer? I’m not sure. She’s using him. She needs to be loved—because of her husband, because of her stupid job. She needs to be worshiped. She needs to have something. She needs to speak. She needs to be listened to. So she’s using him, and the question “do I love him or not” is irrelevant. At this moment in her life it’s irrelevant. She feels so miserable that it’s not the right question. She just wants to feel a little bit better, as she’s saying in the scene outside: “Did you ever think about committing suicide?” “Yeah. I think perhaps if I wait a little bit my life will be better.” Which is killing me at this moment.
The movie has a very strong analogue to Roth’s then-wife, Claire Bloom. Did you talk to her at all?
Never. I read her book, Leaving a Doll’s House, when it was published in the U.S. because every one of you American people were bursting in love reading Claire Bloom’s version of it. No, I have no connection. But I know one thing: at one point of the book—as I told you—he said, “My character has to be called Philip, not Nathan. If not I won’t sell books. I need to be dirty. I need to be part of it. I need to fall down from my pedestal. I don’t want to be on the pedestal and be like Flaubert. I want to be Philip Roth amongst my characters.” And he proposed to call the character of the spouse Claire. And Claire Bloom refused and he said, “Okay, fine, we will just have Philip and she will have no name like the other characters.”
The story is that it was a real point of contention between them.
Yeah. And it was one of the few concessions he ever made as a writer, not calling her Claire. Which is telling how serious it was.
But the audacity to propose to your wife [Laughs] “Do you mind if the character would be called Claire?” “Yes, I do mind.” “Okay! Okay! I will just be Philip.” I think it’s lovely.
You’ve been thinking about this film for so long. Is there an image you had while first reading the book that actually made it into the film?
Really, during all these years, I had no images. When I was writing it it was flat, and I was always stopped by this obstacle: I was giving the rough draft to female friends and it was the same thing which happened on My Sex Life: they were saying it’s misogynistic, it doesn’t fit, it’s bitter. “There is some bitterness in it so it’s no good.” So I said, “Okay, I’m not about to do the film.” And at last when we found our way… I think even in the trial scene we found a way which is so Fellinian. We found our way to transform it into something which is… it’s my way of looking at the feminist issues. It’s the proper way, it’s not the only way; we all have our ways to see that issue. But at last I succeeded into really having portraits of women which were honest and full and plain—not to have the puppetmaster with all the girls around him. To have something to speak from equal to equal. We had that.
But before all these years it was between films that I was working on that. Between films I was wondering, I said, “Come on, I got Roth on the phone. He told me to make it so I should find my way.” And I didn’t find it. And I found it because of the Czech girl’s line: “It’s not the right place for me.” I had the note. It’s the second chapter and she’s speaking for all the characters because she’s not in the right place. She hates that, to be the wife, when she would prefer to be a kid. Rosalie is dying of cancer in a hospital. She feels “I’m not at the right place.” Each one of them can say that. It’s with this angle, at last, I captured what I like in the book.
I think this is one of the most fascinating cinematic-literary marriages I’ve ever seen. I compared it to Schrader’s Mishima a little bit.
But I’ve never seen an adaptation of a book that ends at the launch event for the book that the film is adapting.
It’s insane. And because this is the rare Philip Roth adaptation that gets it right, I have to ask: have you seen the PBS version of The Ghost Writer that Roth co-wrote?
Who was acting in it?
Actually, Claire Bloom is in it. Have you seen it?
I really recommend it. It gets the book’s tenor very well.
Claire Bloom is in it? Oh, that’s great. That’s great. And he co-wrote it?
Roth stepped in from some sense of ownership over the material.
I’m afraid that even the Plot Against America that he co-produced… [Shrugs]
[Shrugs] The book is better.
It always is. Though I think maybe your film is better than Deception.
I think… I think it’s better than the book. [Laughs]
Deception played at Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema and is seeking U.S. distribution.