Arnaud Desplechin • Director of Deception
“She’s defending the cause of women, all women, whilst he’s defending the cause of ‘each’ woman”
by David Katz
- CANNES 2021: The French director finally adapts one of his greatest influences, American author Philip Roth, and we talk about all that, and more
Arnaud Desplechin is a Cannes regular and favourite (the welcoming ovation at Tuesday night’s premiere was one of the most avid seen here this year), but his films in competition haven’t always thrived when the jury announces its results. This year, he’s in a new section, largely devised as a response to the backlog of French films owing to the pandemic, called Cannes Premiere, with Deception [+see also:
interview: Arnaud Desplechin
film profile], a literate and beautiful film version of Philip Roth’s short 1990 novel. His next project, Brother and Sister, with Melvil Poupaud and returning star Marion Cotillard (who was in Ismaël’s Ghosts [+see also:
Q&A: Arnaud Desplechin
film profile] and My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument), will begin shooting this year (read news).
Cineuropa: You read the text of Deception initially in French, and then later in English. Were you following Roth’s career, and reading each book as it was published every few years?
Arnaud Desplechin: I discovered this book quite late – the first one that I read by Philip Roth was Portnoy’s Complaint, when I was a 24-year-old, so rather late. I fell in love with his writing, and I read everything that was published, but I somehow got bored with the translations, and started reading in English. Then, later on, I reread all of the books in French, just for the pleasure of it. I couldn’t wait a year and a half for the translation. And then, after that, I was able to enjoy the French version.
You manage to recreate Roth’s physical look brilliantly with Denis Podalydès. And you did know Roth personally a little. To construct the character with Denis, did you rely on things like filmed interviews or voice recordings?
Indeed, there are many documentaries on Philip Roth that are available, which Denis Podalydès has seen, but our idea was not to rely on any special effects, and I know Denis’s approach to the character, the alter-ego of Philip Roth, was via an inner journey, an inner path, not a physical, outer look. But there are two things that I asked of him: for him to be very slender and very slim – that’s the body of Philip Roth himself, if you look at many of the pictures. And also the eyebrows – every morning, we put some fake ones on, which are a bit bushy. It took one hour, and that’s the only visual effect we relied on.
Another issue is that Denis is not Jewish; he’s Catholic. Actually, Denis is an atheist - I’m Catholic. As Philip Roth, and Some Like It Hot, said, nobody’s perfect. But what they share is that Denis is a wonderful writer and stage director. He has written beautiful books on theatre, the stage and acting – Shakespearean acting.
Of all his novels, The Human Stain, from 2000, has been noted as strongly anticipating the #MeToo movement. Can you talk me through Deception’s imaginary courtroom sequence? It’s like the moral trial that Roth would never encounter in life, but maybe deserved.
Three decades before #MeToo, there was this scene. Indeed, the difficulty is the situation in which Philip finds himself: he’s facing yet another woman, in the guise of Saadia Bentaieb, who plays the judge. Saadia is a wonderful stage actress, and I didn’t want her to ridicule or mock the character of Philip. She’s defending the cause of women, all women, whilst he’s defending the cause of “each” woman, and this is the reason why they’ll never understand each other. And of course, it’s a comical scene – it has to be a lighter tone and make you laugh. And the judge is surrounded by women, the jury, the friends, the lawyers themselves, and it took me several takes. I really wanted to direct more than just her in the trial scene, so that this audience that surrounded her, all of these female characters, would arouse laughter, in a way. It had to be funny, in order to get to the point – this comic effect was a matter of staging, of lighting and of the art of direction. And at the end of it, there is the photograph of Kafka in Philip’s office – that point is just a hint to reflect the fact that we’re in the Kafkaesque.
I remember a line from Sabbath’s Theater, which is one of the most exhilarating lines that Philip Roth ever wrote. In the testimony of Sabbath, he says, “He never did anything for the Jews.” He was a bad Jew. You have the prosecutor here, saying: “What did you ever do for women?” No, I did something for Lea, Emmanuelle. It’s the same game which is played on this stage, and that stage.
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