Great acting, despite slow-moving story.
D. Mok | Los Angeles, CA | 12/17/2002
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Esther Kahn could probably have been 10 to 20 minutes shorter without losing any of its depth of feeling and character. However, it still stands as a flawed but involving dramatic piece thanks to the dual performances of Ian Holm and Summer Phoenix in her first lead role. Holm is eternally reliable, hiding cascades of emotional struggle beneath an understated exterior, but as befits the focus of the story, Phoenix is the one to watch, and she rises to the challenge with a brave, uneven but ultimately engaging performance. Slightly awkward in interview (as provided in this DVD's bonus materials section), Phoenix comes to life onscreen, and her explosive moments of turmoil (such as with the wince-inducing glass sequence and Esther's fight with her mother) make for the highlights of the film.Several pretentious art-film touches mar the film -- the overwritten, badly performed voice-over, for example, as well as the erratic pacing and often choppy editing -- but for a film that aims to explore the psyche of one character, Esther Kahn, the film, succeeds very well and paints a memorable picture of a complex, troubled, and imperfect heroine that we can identify with."
A Motion Picture Collage Assembles the Life of an Actress
Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 08/14/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"ESTHER KAHN is a bizarre film by French Director Arnaud Desplechin ("La Sentinelle") that is so obsessed with atmosphere that it almost forgets a storyline (the film is based on a short story by the same name by Arthur Symons written in 1905). That criticism having been said, if you enjoy film making that takes chances and is wholly unique in the process, then this is a film to savor.
ESTHER KAHN appears to be a "Portrait of the Actress as a Young Woman" and if that is the intent, it succeeds on may levels. As the film opens (after introduction credits that beautifully scan the Jewish ghetto in London, concentrating on windows and doors boarded up all accompanied to exquisite music by Howard Shore) we are introduced to Esther Kahn and her close-knit family: a narrator present throughout the film describes warmly the evening meal of the Kahn family as a time when the day's events are told with as much love as the previous day's events. But in this family there is one girl Esther (Philadelphia Deda) who is an outsider, not wanting the same goals as her siblings, wandering aimlessly through poverty level workhouses until she discovers the theater as a teenager (Esther is now portrayed by Summer Phoenix). Once inside a Yiddish Theater she becomes convinced she must become an actress. She finds tutelage via an older actor Nathan (Ian Holm, in an elegant performance), finds small parts, is given the advice by Nathan that she is cold as stone, dead in fact, that she must experience love and life if she is to succeed in the theater. Committed to her goal, she has an affair with a drama critic (Fabrice Desplechin) who beds her and leaves her for an Italian actress. Esther grows as an actress and is cast in the premiere London performance of "Hedda Gabler" and it is at her opening night that she must face her demons: she has explored her sensual needs and feels the hurt and fury that accompany first encounters. Afraid to go on stage because her ex-lover the drama critic sits in the audience with his new lover, she self mutilates until her fellow actors assist her through the performance - a performance in which she triumphs. But what her life will be after the gaslights go dark is left to speculation.
A good story, well told. The only problems with this film are its excessive length (2 hours 22 minutes), the superimposed voices in both Yiddish and English which usually means that despite the nice effect the words in neither language are audible. Howard Shore has composed some beautiful music (he uses Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question" as background for a appropriate moment in the story) but the sound mixer covers the dialogue with the music, again preventing our hearing what is being said. The cinematography is mesmerizingly beautiful, with ghost images often superimposed on the action and the atmosphere of London ghettoes and the stages where the plays happen are elegant. Summer Phoenix is rather one dimensional in her bland affect with the sole exception of when she becomes outraged at the world or herself. But much of that is intrinsic to the character until she become an actress - and when Phoenix is on the stage she is dead emotionally and physically. The supporting cast is superb - if only we could understand what they were saying (see above). Still in all, the mood and message of the film lingers in the mind like a new piece of music long after the story ends. The DVD has only a few added features: an interview with Summer Phoenix shows a self-conscious young actress uncomfortable with the camera and saying little except written PR notes for the film. Deleted scenes are included and are aptly atmospheric: would that they had been inserted in the final product, replacing some of the redundant ennui retained. In English and Yiddish with NO subtitles (not "Dubbed") in a movie that would have been greatly enhanced with that option."