ESTHER KAHN(director/writer: Arnaud Desplechin; screenwriters: Emmanuel Bourdieu/based on a short story by Arthur Symons; cinematographer: Eric Gautier; editors: Martine Giordano and Hervé de Luze; music: Howard Shore; cast: Summer Phoenix (Esther), Philadelphia Deda (Esther as a child), Ian Holm (Nathan), Frances Barber (Rivka), Laszlo Szabo (Ythzok), Fabrice Desplechin (Philip Haygart), Ramin Gray (Narrator) Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Oury Milshtein/Waldo Roeg; Empire Pictures/Wellspring; 2000-UK)
“It’s a strange film, one that was hard for me to warm up to.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A lush costume period piece drama that’s much too long and tedious and lacking in dramatics. Most critics have referred to it as a misguided effort, though those associated with Cahiers du Cinéma fully embraced it. “Esther Kahn” was featured at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, but refused a showing at the New York Film Festival. It’s a strange film, one that was hard for me to warm up to. Its clumsily told story is the obstacle, as a narrator (Ramin Gray) is lazily used to tell its story instead of relying on dramatics. Yet, it never quite sinks like the usual from ‘rags to riches’ Hollywood showbiz bios.
“Esther Kahn” is about an unremarkable, shy, poor immigrant Jewish girl emerging from a working-class family of sweatshop tailors in London’s East End towards the close of the 19th century, who through bold determination transforms herself into a leading actress. Esther Kahn is played by Summer Phoenix who gives a decent but hardly a convincing performance, as she’s able to glide into her role and pull out her character’s complicated emotional elements such as her mixture of fragility and steeliness.
French director Arnaud Desplechin (“My Sex Life . . . or How I Got Into an Argument“/”La Sentinelle“) adapts a short story by British poet Arthur Symons, and stumbles his way through this ambitious project despite his inability to master the English language. And, despite the film’s many failings, it still is somewhat interesting as it attempts to get at the mystery and essence of acting.
Esther was born with a different disposition than her large and noisy family. She never could be interested in their concerns for socialist causes or Zionism or working in a sweatshop, and made no attempt to pretend to fit into her family’s reality. The narrator fills us in throughout about what Esther feels inside. The narrator tells of how she was raised in the dark streets near the docks, where few people could be seen outside and where the residents all kept their blinds shut. This left her feeling depressed and looking for a way out of the ghetto. Her beset mother Rivka (Frances Barber) in a good-natured way remarks that her Esther (played as a young girl by Philadelphia Deda) is “not a human child at all but a monkey, as if that will explain why she’s the odd one in the family.”
The self-absorbed Esther is suddenly filled with ecstasy when she attends a middle-brow ribald Yiddish play with her family and finds that she doesn’t care if she liked the play or not, because she has found out for certain that she must be an actress. Esther boldly auditions for a British theatrical company and gets a minor role as a maid. Her mother is happily surprised that she was hired, because it’s hard to think of her sullen and withdrawn and poorly educated daughter as an actress. Also making the hiring improbable is that her diction suffers from a strong Cockney accent, and she refuses to change her Jewish name as most Jewish actors did during the Victorian era.
At a play audition, Esther meets an aging second-rate Jewish actor, Nathan (Ian Holm), who takes her under his wings. He gives her dubious advice but it sounds good coming from him because he’s so articulate. He tells her to change and become more worldly, that she’s “as cold and hard as stone.” When he confirms that she’s a virgin, he says she’s emotionally dead and urges her to get laid…get a boyfriend.
Esther sets her mind on snapping up an experienced lover who could be useful to her and selects a womanizing playwright and drama critic, Philip (the director’s brother, Fabrice Desplechin). Their affair blossoms along with her career, as he becomes her second mentor. In another calculated career-move, Esther gives Philip a Norwegian copy of Ibsen’s latest drama, Hedda Gabler, and asks him to translate it. As a result of his translation, Esther is cast in the lead for its London production.
The focal point of “Esther Kahn” is an exploration of what makes an actress, and this aim is supposedly reached by the film’s climax. Esther is playing the lead role of Hedda Gabler at the theater opening and becomes taken with a severe case of stage fright. Her repressed actions are set off when she discovers Philip, who just dumped her for another actress, has brought that actress to the show. After a few overly melodramatic bouts trying to injure herself, Esther goes on to perform. Since we don’t see her act except through slow-mo scenes, we must take the narrator’s word how in that performance “the actress was made.” We are left with the impression that for Esther, being an actress is everything and the men in her life can be viewed as stepping stones to that end.
I’m not sure if the understated film really ever got around its conventional plot devices to demonstrate what is the magic in acting. The point it tries to make is that this ordinary woman comes alive only in the theater. But seeing is believing, and I didn’t see how Esther acts on the stage. I liked Arnaud Desplechin’s previous films and I guess I was let down because I expected more than what this film was able to muster. The beauty is in the amazing atmospheric photography of Victorian London by Eric Gautier and in the expressive musical score composed by Howard Shore.
REVIEWED ON 4/1/2003 GRADE: C +
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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