Esther Kahn

by Dan Sallitt

An edited version of this piece was published  on 1 Mar 02 at Tone and Groove.
Esther Kahn has divided audiences since its premiere at Cannes 2000. French director Arnaud Desplechin’s third feature, following his critical successes La Sentinelle and How I Started an Argument…(My Sex Life), is a scrupulously faithful adaptation of a little-known English short story by Arthur Symons, set in London and filmed in the author’s native language—but with the unorthodox casting of American Summer Phoenix as Esther, supported by an oddly-matched international cast. The French received Esther and Phoenix well (prestigious magazine Cahiers du Cinema ranked it the best film of 2000), but English-language critics and festivals were far from unanimous in their support. Those of us who consider Esther the first great film of the young century count ourselves lucky that it is being distributed in America at all, even with 20 minutes trimmed by Desplechin from its Cannes running time.

Born into an immigrant Jewish family living in London’s East End, Esther Kahn labors with her parents and three siblings in the family’s precarious garment business, run from their overcrowded apartment.  But it’s apparent to all that Esther doesn’t fit in.  Not only is she hopelessly slow at work, but she barely participates in the family’s garrulous social and intellectual life.  In fact, Esther is cut off from normal human experience.  She possesses only a small repertoire of emotions: burning, sometimes violent anger; a fierce fear of being exposed or understood; and an automaton-like sense of mission about whatever she undertakes.  Wondering if the rest of the world merely fakes the feelings they so like to talk about, she watches intently, becomes adept at mimicry, and clumsily pursues the mystery of “real life.”  Her one passion is theater, which she drinks in as if her life depends on it; and one day she finds a small role in a play on the Strand.  Amazingly, Esther soon becomes successful enough at acting to earn a decent living.  But she is intelligent enough to know that her walled-in state prevents her from realizing her acting potential.  So she sets out in search of experience in her usual dogged, methodical way, and lands the charming, elusive drama critic Philip Heygard (Fabrice Desplechin), who gives Esther the primal experience she’d been seeking when he jilts her on the eve of her first lead performance in a production of Hedda Gabler.

It’s easy to see why Esther might give audiences pause.  For one thing, the performances from the polyglot cast aren’t always polished: some performers are too broad, others on the eccentric side.  And none are more eccentric than Phoenix: she is so convincingly crude and stunted that it’s hard to imagine her being allowed to tread the stages of London.  For another thing, the story creates expectations of a familiar emotional payoff—fledgling actress delivers the goods in the last act—that the film never follows through on.  Esther doesn’t emerge from her cocoon with the flair of, say, Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory—Desplechin is interested in her mere existence, not her transformation.

What makes Esther a great film is that Desplechin cares so deeply about mere existence.  In his own way, Desplechin has obtained the great centerpiece performance that the genre seems to require.  Raw though Phoenix’s acting may sometimes be, she is so vivid and elemental that she erases the distinction between herself and her character.  Desplechin guides her to the essence of Esther by stripping away her duties as narrative guide and identification figure, and homing in on the constituent parts of her being.  The mystery of Esther is revealed in blocks of behavioral data.  At a dance, confused after rejecting a partner, Esther strides vigorously but meaninglessly across the floor, then stands motionless again, her temporary resolve expended.  In a quarrel with her siblings, she erupts in fury, throws someone’s magazine out the window, then subsides into calm upon the completion of her task.  Punishing herself for her failed love affair, she winces from a self-inflicted blow, then matter-of-factly checks the bruise in a mirror, the pain dropping from her face.  The paradox of Esther’s acting career is that she has all her life been a bad actor in the role of herself, always floundering for the right tone and expression in her attempt to simulate humanity.  The amazing achievement of Esther Kahn is that Phoenix’s struggle to approximate Esther, Esther’s struggle to approximate Hedda Gabler, and Esther’s struggle to approximate a normal person are so completely the same struggle that they can’t be teased apart.  This is the source of Esther’s credibility problem with some audiences, and also the secret of how it manages to make all other films seem artificial in comparison.  We often take pleasure in seeing the wheels turn behind a performance: it gives us proof that acting is really happening.  Desplechin and Phoenix emphatically deny us this pleasure.

More than just a startling performance, Esther Kahn is also an original depiction of the immigrant family and of backstage theater life.  Here too, Desplechin risks alienating us with his single-minded attention to the moving parts of social structures and his unwillingness to harmonize his observations with the big narrative picture.  Yet it’s hard to think of a cinema family that rings as true as Esther’s: we may not have a clear sense of each person’s role or personality, but we see in concrete terms the forced intimacy of immigrant life, the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of family ties, the daily cruelty that doesn’t rupture bonds.  Similarly, we see theater life as a functional system, built around sustaining fragile psyches with the illusion of communality.  Desplechin pursues his moments of truth with a mobile handheld camera and a jagged, flexible editing style that organizes a mosaic of raw material around the backbone of Symons’ story line.  If Esther Kahn inspires such passion in its defenders, it’s because its filmmaker is as fierce and desperate in pursuit of life as its protagonist.