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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Esther Kahn: Notes on the Beloved Object

Yesterday’s screening of Esther Kahn was of the shorter cut (usually reported as 142 minutes long, though I believe it ran somewhat longer) that Desplechin created after the film’s premiere at Cannes 2000. I’d rather see the longer Cannes version (163 minutes), but the shorter one is no travesty. I don’t know of a comprehensive analysis of the differences between the versions; here are the cuts that I’ve noted.

1) Esther’s dream of a world populated by men with balloons for heads is completely excised from the short version. The dream scene is interesting, but I don’t miss it that much.
2) Philippe’s long tavern monologue about his imprisonment and subsequent mental breakdown is completely excised from the short version. Again, I can handle this loss.
3) The beautiful and mysterious scene of Esther and her father talking while crouching on the river bank is shortened. I quite regret this.
4) Esther’s negotiation with her family to work out a payment plan that will allow her to go on the stage is completely excised. I miss this scene.

I’ve written about Esther before, and so have only incremental observations to offer. What struck me most on this viewing is the streak of wild comedy that weaves through the film, and which is perhaps more obvious on repeat viewings. Esther’s quasi-autistic emotional detachment from the events of her life, though taken seriously by the filmmakers, means that her actions have a weird, willed fixity that, if you believe Henri Bergson, is intrinsically comic. And the more somber the scene, the more Esther’s automaton-like reactions are set into relief. Last night I chuckled to myself through most of the movie, and became downright mirthful at the film’s more frightening moments. To appreciate the originality of Summer Phoenix’s performance, one need only consider the scene where romantic despair makes her beat her face with her fists until it is swollen: at one unexpectedly fierce blow, her eyebrows go high in surprise, and her scientific detachment continues as she checks her jaw for major damage. A few scenes later, when Esther looks at a broken glass and does a dispassionate, silent analysis of how much damage she can inflict upon herself with it, I broke out in laughter that might reasonably have seemed inappropriate to some audience members.

It goes without saying that Desplechin’s mastery at creating ambience is a big factor in the film’s originality. But it’s interesting to think about what principles Desplechin follows – because there are all kinds of ambience, after all. In the family scenes, here and in other films, Desplechin seems to want to evoke a social paradise of intimacy and accessibility, despite (or rather because of) the film’s content pointing in a different and more uncomfortable direction. As for the evocative theater environments that dominate the last movement of the film, we experience the romance of darkened, quiet rooms (again, in counterpoint to the mounting tension of the story) and the rabbit-hutch feeling of bit players weaving in and out of dressing rooms and antechambers, all serving the purpose of the group mind that must place Esther on the stage at all costs. In Desplechin’s work, there is a backbeat – not a theme, but a vibration – of idyll, of heaven on earth, of the sum total of loved ones gathered in one place.

When one loves a film as much as I love Esther, things get confusing sometimes. My early, giddy feeling about the mystery of Phoenix’s performance - that it was impossible to tell whether she was an actress or just the right person on the right set – has passed. At a minimum, Esther has a Cockney accent, and I now know that Phoenix was raised in Florida and California. And she was compelling in the only other film I've seen her in, Henry Bean's The Believer. But it’s still exciting to watch Summer Phoenix impersonating Esther Kahn impersonating someone who might be able to do a good Hedda Gabler, and never quite to be sure which layer of the object is currently catching the light. Back in the early days of Esthermania, when Gabe Klinger said he was looking for a girlfriend like Esther Kahn, I urged him to reconsider. But I have a habit of wandering past the chic clothing boutique on Ludlow that Phoenix co-owns, hoping to catch a glimpse of her inside, even though I understand she’s in Los Angeles having babies with Casey Affleck.



Anonymous jack gibbs said...

wonderful post. like all of desplechin's films it becomes more fruitful and more complicated upon repeated viewings (i think i've seen e.k. 4 or 5 times but i'm not quite sure. thankfully 2 have been 35mm prints of the longer cut). all of desplechin's films are ones i can't help but see every time they play and they all reward this mania. esther kahn is perhaps the most misunderstood of his films, standing apart on the surface yet truly of a piece with all his work. it is also one of his most brilliant and offers some of the most illuminating insights into his cinema on the whole.

i've now seen a christmas tale twice and can't wait for the third as the first viewing bowls you over, the second finds one getting their bearings and i can only imagine the third will, like other desplechin films, begin to illuminate, and confound further, the flury of ideas the film offers.

November 15, 2008 10:57 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Are you going to post about A Christmas Tale? I see you are mixed on it and I am curious to learn why.

November 16, 2008 5:20 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Jack - I've seen the long version of Esther twice and the short version twice. If I recall correctly, the French DVD contains the long version.

Jason - I confess I'm having trouble coming to terms with Desplechin's post-Esther work. He seems to be reaching directly out to the audience, trying to give us unmediated pleasures. Something similar happened with Truffaut in the last ten or so years of his career: the films seemed to say, "I find this amusing, and so will you," while dropping the pretense of events being staged within the film universe for purposes that belong to the film universe. In addition, maybe Desplechin has unleashed a taste for demonstration and exhibition that isn't easy for me to enjoy. And then maybe some of the characters in the new film are a bit too narrowly defined by their script function? I'm thinking especially of Elizabeth. At any rate, I'm going back to see Noël again - I got more out of Rois et reine the second time.

November 17, 2008 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Jack Gibbs said...

While I understand, somewhat, your reservations about recent Desplechin I can't say I entirely agree. Perhaps it is my simple mindedness but I don't think I fully grasp what you mean by when you say, in comparison to Truffaut, "the films seemed to say, "I find this amusing, and so will you," while dropping the pretense of events being staged within the film universe for purposes that belong to the film universe." If anything it seems his films have delved further into this idea of "the film universe", that is the characters, events, world of the film at hand. (Also, an aside, while I understand comparisons to Truffaut in some respect I've never really seen beyond a surface comparison in the two. They seem to be preoccupied by opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of ideas and the importance placed on the investigation and working out of them. That is to say, I have only found myself truly interested in Truffaut's genre films, and perhaps Two English Girls, and found many of his films to be all to slight, wheras Desplechin's films seem far more concerned with ideas and representations and presentations in a way, though very different in form more similar to Rivette in some respects). Desplechin seems to have move towards an even more conscious addressing of ideas and philsophies in his recent films through a more conscious filmic form if that makes any sense. In some respect they have become less "natural", or something, but have also become more so in their increased awareness of the medium in which they exist. Anyways, I'm perhaps too tired and intoxicated to continue now, and that is perhaps responsible, somewhat, for the incoherence above, but hopefully can continue a dialogue on these ideas in the clearer light of day.

What do you make of L'aimee?

November 18, 2008 12:26 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Jack – I can't speak with confidence about recent Desplechin and my hesitant responses, and I definitely don't want to say much about Noël before a second viewing. But, to try to explain my "film universe" comment: in the earlier films, I sense Desplechin subordinating his effects to structural considerations. The effect would be first anchored in character or in event, and only secondarily and indirectly would it act on the viewer. For instance, if in Esther Desplechin evokes the community of theater, the interconnectedness of its participants, the sense of a coordinated effort emerging effortlessly from the environment, this effect is strictly subordinated on a narrative level to Esther's crisis and to the suspense surrounding her appearance. In (the amazing) La Vie des morts, the ideal vision of all loved ones gathered in one place is subordinated on a scene-by-scene basis to the story of death, despair, and depression.

Lately I feel this kind of intratextual material throwing off its cover and seizing the foreground of the movies. When joy emerges from a solemn holding context, it really erupts. It sometimes makes me feel that the celebrative aspects of the filmmaking are now in the foreground, and that the more unhappy subject matter is almost a pretext. If true, this would not merely make the films more joyous: it would deprive them of two-leveled resonance. Again, I'm still trying to understand this, and don't want to state an opinion forcefully. Maybe I'm just shy about a kind of exhibition that Desplechin is increasingly embracing.

I'm a Truffaut admirer. Without pushing the comparison too far, I see similarities between Truffaut and Desplechin. I don't think either one cares a lot about documenting space and time, for instance. There's a kind of "writing" going on with both filmmakers, an obviousness in the way the filmmaker's presence is inscribed, a foregrounding of the ways that the filmmaker directs our attention via cuts, voiceover, even irising. To love the films, we have to admire the filmmakers' human qualities. Perhaps the inspiration of Rossellini stands behind both these styles.

I liked L'Aimée and was intrigued by how similar its editing strategies were to some of Desplechin's fiction films (La Vie des morts especially). I don't know if I consider it major. Inevitably it emerged as a film about the father, and I wonder whether that was really Desplechin's plan, or whether it is quite enough to sustain the project.

November 18, 2008 12:29 PM  

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