movie review - ESTHER KAHN


Producer: Alain Sarde
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Writers: Arnaud Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu
Based on a story by Arthur Symons.

The daughter of poor Jewish immigrants in 19th century London, Esther Kahn (Summer Phoenix) walks through life with a seemingly dull exterior. The only thing that brings her to life is the theatre or her attempts at mimicking the people around her. Her dream is to be a stage actress; and after facing some opposition from her hardened and practical family, she gets a small part in a local theatre. Fiercely determined and barely literate, she then moves out on her own, and befriends a mediocre actor Nathan (Ian Holm), who turns out to be an excellent tutor.

Esther memorizes her lines perfectly and performs her parts like clockwork, and doesn’t seem to be able to rise from her small roles mainly due to her characteristic deadness, which shows on stage as it does in her every day life; possibly the after-effects of a much deprived childhood and her need to hide from any pain and sorrow brought by it. A problem, which Nathan suggests could be solved if she finds herself a lover and experience life, as it were.

Methodically, as on stage and as in life, Esther searches out a lover, a playwright named Philip (Fabrice Desplechin) and a womanizer at that, a fact of which she is very much aware. In spite of the affair, the angst, the internal conflict and the tide emotions that she expected to feel still eludes her.

Besides being her lover, Philip educates her on the nuances of stage play-acting, on the difference between being a ‘nice’ actress and actually reaching the audience, in being able to ‘act’ without acting. He, like Nathan, sees potential beneath Esther’s detached surface. She gifts him a copy Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler as a token of her affection, which he translates into English and grants her the starring role.

Esther is then jilted for an Italian street performer. This woman is flamboyantly sensuous, a complete opposite from Esther’s brooding restraint. Esther begins to feel the pangs of jealousy, pain, everything that had eluded her till then. She sends Philip a note in her shaky, illiterate hand and confronts him. She is heart-broken, angry, but the past years of holding everything back still refuse to let the anger surface. What results is an emotionally charged scene that is ridden with restrained passion. When she accuses him leaving her for a lesser woman, he tells her matter-of-factly that she was no better since she had sold herself the same way, for the sake of her career.

Unfortunately for Esther, the strange new emotions she is experiencing happen on the day before her opening night. She reacts humanly, with escapism and with fear, refusing to perform. Especially when she sees that Philip is going to attend the performance with his new mistress. There is a sequence of self-abuse, of not wanting to enter the theatre, she even chews on glass to evade the performance. Her fellow actors react with patience at first, pleading with her, then try slapping her and finally, physically pushing her onto the stage. What comes then is taken over by the rise of the background score and the narrator describing the feelings of the silent audience. We never really get to see how Esther performs, except a bit towards the end, and the narrator’s assurance that she was doing spectacularly well and had finally ‘struck the chord’ that needed to be struck all this while. This is about the only dissatisfying part. Even Esther doesn’t realise how she did, and with bouts of diarrhea between the acts, asks of her fellow actors’ assurance on her performance. There is a voice over of Esther during the play, a rush of words that describes her inner turmoil and likens her strange new feelings to ‘butchery’. Her personal life and her stage life merge, she is finally ‘acting’ without acting.

The story is less of a girl blossoming into an actress and maturing into a woman, it is more of a rude awakening for Esther, thus depicting a harsh realism that might make the plot seem a bit jerky. You could say the purpose of choosing a period piece would be to adequately dramatize it, embellish it, atleast a little. In that case, when French Director Arnaud Desplechin made Esther Kahn as underplayed as it was, he committed the equivalent of cinematic suicide. The movie fell prey to a lot of bad reviews, mainly due to its somewhat wooden main character. For some viewers though, its well-intentioned realism coupled with its undulating soundtrack that sometimes rises and takes over, makes the film refreshingly different. Summer Phoenix’s soulful looks seem apt for her part, the words seem to come in fits and starts, and fit the personality of the central character. Ian Holm is excellent as the fatherly mentor.

No powerhouse performances here, neither is this easy viewing, but I wouldn’t let this fall into an art-film category. I suppose a lot of people couldn’t fathom the obscurity in this film, other critics took it as a pretty straightforward narrative. Therefore the love-hate reviews.

- movie buff

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