Credit: Fox Lorber
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Esther Kahn — Arnaud Desplechin

March 4, 2022

Arnaud Desplechin’s third feature, Esther Kahn, premiered to mixed reviews at the 2000 edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Originally clocking in at 152 minutes, the celebrated young director of the much heralded My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument suddenly found his latest project met with a dire lack of distribution prospects. Esther Kahn finally made its way to the States in 2002; newly shorn of 15 minutes, it nonetheless still failed to broadly impress (despite a few vocal supporters like Film Comment’s Kent Jones). Desplechin would eventually cement his reputation with festival-savvy cinephiles by quickly returning to expansive, sprawling portraits of middle-class ennui and charmingly dysfunctional families in contemporary Paris; indeed, My Sex Life…Kings & Queens, and A Christmas Tale, all anchored by Mathieu Amalric’s nervous, fidgety persona and peculiar energy, form something of a loose thematic trilogy, and all found almost universal critical acclaim (giving Amalric a side career as a character actor in American films in the process). But it’s Esther Kahn that continues to haunt and enthrall all these years later, simultaneously of a piece with the rest of his work while also suggestive of a path not taken. Coming as it did at the tail end of the 20th century, Esther Kahn ushered in the new millennium by imbuing the moribund, costumed period genre with a vigorous modernity. Certainly this purposeful upending of genre expectations goes some ways toward explaining its cool (if not outright hostile) reception by critics, as well as its second life as a kind of maudit amongst the Desplechin faithful.

Beginning in the slums of London in the late 19th century, Esther Kahn charts the travails of our eponymous protagonist as she struggles to make sense of her family and the world around her. A quiet, reserved young lady (played as a child by Philadelphia Deda), Esther occasionally erupts into fits of pique, violently striking out at others. Her put-upon mother Rivka (Frances Barber) indulges her at first, but seems to gradually tire of her daughter’s emotional outbursts. Eventually Esther stumbles upon a local stage production, instantly falling in love with the idea of acting. The remainder of the film follows Esther (now played as an adolescent and then young adult by Summer Phoenix) as she seeks to perfect her craft, first under the tutelage of a fellow actor, Nathan Quellen (Ian Holm), and then a well-to-do lover, Phillipe Haygard (Fabrice Desplechin, Arnaud’s brother). Adapted from a short story by Arthur Symons, Desplechin imports chunks of the story’s dialogue into his film via voiceover narration. Like an all-seeing voice of god, this monotone, affectless narrator occasionally interrupts the action to state flatly what Esther is thinking or feeling. It’s a bold, direct choice, creating a kind of detachment between the audience and the character that mirrors Esther’s own detachment from the world. It’s a freewheeling bildungsroman, with Desplechin mixing literary, theatrical, and filmic conventions into an intoxicating character study of a fundamentally unknowable person.

Working with the great cinematographer Eric Gautier, Desplechin conjures a harsh vision of a yellow- and sepia-toned industrial past, all cramped interiors and claustrophobic closeups. Characters are shoved into the frame, everyone jostling for space. Gautier keeps his camera hovering behind heads and over shoulders, peering through doorways and catching glimpses of movement around the edges of the image. Once Esther finally enters the more rarified world of the theater, Desplechin opens up the space a bit. It’s a stark enough contrast between the proscenium arches and Esther’s uncomfortable home life to suggest a clear visual corollary to the freedom the theater affords her. As a director, Desplechin is always looking for ways to visualize a feeling, or a frame of mind. Here, that involves the free use of irising in and out of scenes, as well as cryptic lap dissolves and visual juxtapositions that occasionally give the impression of characters being haunted by their own ghostly afterimage. The film’s most important scene comes about an hour in, as Esther embarks on her first training session with Quellen, wherein he lays out an entire philosophy of acting, the importance of making even the simplest of decisions, like how to walk from point A to point B. It’s a long sequence, unwinding in seeming real-time, as Esther occupies one far edge of the frame and Quellen stands away from her, recessed in the background. Desplechin whips the camera back and forth, catching the side of Esther’s face in extreme closeup, before panning back to observe Quellen at center stage. There’s a whole universe of ideas contained in this camera movement, as Desplechin tries to contain the subjective (Esther’s closeup) with the objective (Quellen’s master shot). It’s thrilling stuff.

The last act of the film, as Esther has a nervous breakdown while trying to perform Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, rivals Cassavettes’ Opening Night as one of the great sequences of film and theater intersecting, two wildly different modes of mediated reality clashing and reconfiguring each other into something startlingly new. It’s here that Desplechin most clearly signals his indebtedness to Rivette, and La Belle Noiseuse in particular. In Rivette’s study of artistic obsession, the audience sees Michel Piccoli’s painter hard at work on his final masterpiece, a painting that Rivette never actually shows. Here, too, Desplechin never actually shows Esther acting, despite others commenting on her skills over and over. Instead, whenever Esther takes the stage, Desplechin drops out the diegetic audio and has the narrator describe what Esther is feeling as she performs. It’s a remarkable device, almost perverse, as if Desplechin knows that he has placed Phoenix in an impossible position. After all, what does it even mean to be a great actor? Desplechin has no concrete answer to offer, only a series of philosophical inquiries that place Esther, and Phoenix, into a kind of theoretical proof. It’s ingenious, in its way, although contemporaneous reviews were quick to blame Phoenix for the film’s alleged shortcomings. It’s a shame, as she gives one of the great performances of the modern cinema, guileless and fearless. Phoenix seemingly retired from acting in 2004, focusing on raising a family and pursuing a music career, but has reportedly made tentative steps in recent years to resume performing. Here’s hoping she can find another role even half as satisfying as that of Esther, as defining a character as we’ve been gifted this millennium.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.