Get a Life Onstage

To escape the drab and dull, Esther acts out a new life

What is it about the theater that attracts so many filmmakers? The actor's paradoxical task -- to tell the truth while pretending to be someone else -- is usually at the heart of this fascination. Not a year goes by without a movie about actors and live performance, from big-studio pictures to tiny indies like Arnaud Desplechin's 2000 feature, Esther Kahn (playing as part of the Miami Jewish Film Festival; see Night & Day for more information). Based on a short story by Arthur Symons, the film traces the gradual spiritual awakening of a drab, dull Jewish girl living in the drab, dull East End of London at the turn of the Twentieth Century.

Esther (Summer Phoenix) plods along her monotonous way, living and working with her family, who scratch out a living sewing clothes. Her father is emotionally distant, her mother is a critical harridan, her siblings are numerous and unexceptional. Nothing and no one moves Esther until she goes to the theater and becomes fascinated with the life she sees onstage. To her, performance isn't an imitation of real life; it's more real than life, at least her own. Soon she applies for work as an understudy, and bit part by bit part, she works her way up to leading roles. Along the way she encounters Nathan (Ian Holm), a grizzled ham actor who takes her under his wing for a series of acting lessons. Acting is lying but it is also truth-telling, he tells her. What comes first? Truth or lies? Nathan urges Esther to experience life and love in order to play it. So dutiful Esther goes out and finds a lover, roguish drama critic Philippe (Fabrice Desplechin, the director's brother). She has sex with him but still feels nothing. Is experience essential to performance?

Such speculations are at the heart of Esther Kahn, which is completely absorbed in its own ideas to the detriment of its narrative. Esther's slow journey to self-awareness makes for a good character study, and some interesting issues are raised. But few are pursued, and there's precious little dramatic action for most of the film. It's only after Philippe dumps her and takes a new mistress that Esther feels the pain of experience and the story starts to heat up. And when Philippe brings his new amour to Esther's opening-night performance as Hedda Gabler, all hell breaks loose backstage. Suddenly the morose Gallic mood of the first half spins into high histrionics as Esther's emotions zoom out of control. This is where Desplechin has been heading all along, but it's a mighty long and slow journey before he gets there.

Summer Phoenix as an East End dreamer
Summer Phoenix as an East End dreamer

Visually Desplechin's take on this tale is an unusual blend of picturesque period settings and gritty, hand-held camerawork from cinematographer Eric Gautier, who gave Patrice Chereau's Intimacy a similar docudrama feel. Unlike most period dramas with a Masterpiece Theater sensibility, Esther Kahnlooks at lives most ordinary and how humble people lived and worked. It's also, briefly, a peek into the British Jewish community of the time, though once Esther leaves her East End family for the West End stages, her religious and ethnic identity no longer remains central.

Much of Esther Kahn, shot in wavering closeups and mid-shots, has a claustrophic, disjointed feel and a (presumably deliberate) murkiness. The plaintive, brooding score by Howard Shore (Se7en, Ed Wood, After Hours) adds immeasurably to the film's dark mood, but such atmospherics aren't balanced by basic story craft.

The first rambling, episodic half is so jumpy that the story often gets lost: An anonymous offscreen narrator is used to fill in a lot of essential information that the film itself fails to present. It's only after Esther enters the heightened world of the theater that the screen lights up and the action flows from shot to shot. But even then the film feels helter-skelter, never building to a clear ideological or emotional payoff. Part of the problem is Phoenix's downbeat, monochromatic performance. Her reedy, nasal voice and dull expression are suited to Esther's drab early self, but Phoenix clearly lacks the resources to pull off her emotional emergence, and it's not at all evident why this girl would be allowed anywhere near Hedda Gabler. She certainly lacks charisma and so too does this film.

Like its title character, Esther Kahnstruggles with intriguing ideas but lacks the craft or insight to explore or explicate them.

 
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