The Jewish Nomad: How to start reading Philip Roth (with subtitles rather than a book)

I have a confession to make: I’ve never read a book by the American author Philip Roth.

So when I sat down at home to watch the adaptation of his novel Deception at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival’s virtual cinema, I had zero expectations.

The story revolves around a promiscuous middle-aged writer named Philip who cheats on his wife with many women throughout his life. Was it fiction or not? His fans are unclear to this day.

The film is in French (that’s France French, not Québécois) and directed by Arnaud Desplechin— who also co-wrote the screenplay. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, under the title Tromperie.

A very artsy slice-of-life-type movie, it takes place in the late 1980s, and is separated into chapters as a nod to the originating book.

The cinematography plays with the audience’s perception of reality, starting off with a scene where Philip’s mistress is describing the room she’s in. At first, it appears she’s in a cave and then suddenly, as she continues describing, you realize she’s in his office. Trippy stuff.

While the avant-garde nature was attractive to the eye, it’s hard to feel empathy towards a man who blatantly gaslights his wife, while indulging in selfish carnal acts of passion.

Franco-Greek actor Denis Podalydès gives a convincing and charming performance as the lead. But watching him fondle a woman half his age (portrayed by the talented French actor Léa Seydoux) made me squirm. 

Not to mention that her character is a married woman. Not to mention that he seems to feel no guilt whatsoever.

However, just as I was starting to paint his character out as insufferable, the film pointedly addresses the issue with a courtroom scene. Philip is on trial for the treatment of women in his life, as well as his writing.

While he never becomes entirely sympathetic, the script takes some twists and turns as we are introduced to previous lovers of his including a Czech prostitute, a woman dying of cancer and a former student of his. (She casually mentions she was 19 at the time of their affair, in case you were worried.)

Subtle questions about antisemitism, Israeli politics and assimilation are interwoven throughout. But the questions linger in the air and remain mostly unanswered.

At one point in the story, Philip and his mistress make a list of dangerous questions they want to ask each other. He asks what her real feelings on Jews are—and we never get the response.

Later in the film, she asks him why people hate Israel so much. He responds with a muddled answer about how it’s a huge misunderstanding, but doesn’t elaborate.

A bit on the nose, we find out later on that Philip is compiling the stories of his misdemeanor into a book called (wait for it…!) Deception. 

This is after his wife finds his private journal containing intimate details of his adulterous rendezvous. When she confronts him, Philip angrily insists these entries are purely fictional, inspiration for the book he’s working on. (Oy.)

One thing is clear: Philip is a shady guy, despite his eloquent vocabulary and tender acts of feigned love.

Was this worth 105 minutes of my life? Hard to say. The film moves slowly and is dialogue heavy, but watching unhappy people make dubiously immoral choices for almost two hours certainly makes you appreciate the people in your life who don’t suck.

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival continues through June 26. For more info visit their website.

Ilana Zackon can be reached at [email protected] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

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