2017 Film Essays

Secret Defense: A Close-Up on Arnaud Desplechin’s ‘Esther Kahn’

“There is a constant metastasis of energy, emotion, and role from stage to the world around it” — George Kouvaros, Where Does It Happen?: John Cassavetes and Cinema at the Breaking Point

Throughout the history of cinema, many great filmmakers have recurringly turned their cameras on the process of acting as a means to access a deeper, existential truth: John Cassavetes, and his notion of the stage as an existential battleground in which actor and character battle for supremacy; David Lynch, and his portraits of acting engendering an essential schizophrenia; Abbas Kiarostami, and his collapsing of professional acting and the performance necessary to modern social life; Abel Ferrara, and his explorations of the roots of the performance impulse in masochism and exhibitionism; Jacques Rivette, and his explorations of realities that only seem to make sense when understood through the prism of theatre; Jean Renoir, and his powerful realization of the Shakespearean adage that all the world is a stage. Less esteemed but just as substantial as these examples, Arnaud Desplechin’s first English language feature Esther Kahn was rejected by the New York Film Festival, which had previously screened Desplechin’s La Sentinelle and My Sex Life . . . or How I Got Into an Argument and was met with overwhelming negativity by the Western press. Yet, since its premiere, the film has gained a reputation as a valuable film maudit among a certain subset of cinephiles — it was even (infamously) named the best film of the 2000 by Cahiers du Cinéma.

“Pay no attention to her. She’s not a human child. She’s a… monkey. She lives with us so she has to snatch herself a soul, like monkeys do. They might look like little people, but they know they’re not, so they try to be. And that’s why there always aping others,” says Esther’s mother in an early scene, a reaction to the girl (Summer Phoenix) sitting alone by the staircase while the rest of the family eat together, silently imitating them. As an introverted, isolated and hard-edged child, Esther is treated as an essentially blank slate onto which other people can project their own psychological motivations: her mother sees her as a feral creature longing to be human through observation; her brother sees her as a snob, her father perceives her as a wilful social outcast and her sisters see her as a dunce forever failing to integrate. Esther’s childhood is spent in the cramped, sooty interiors of late-19th Century working class London, an environment Esther feels fundamentally alienated from. Desplechin maps the area in a series of ragged, shallow-focus handheld shots, with sets bathed in sickly yellow light. Esther is barely able to read and cannot differentiate left from right. She’s an unskilled worker at the sweatshop where she works with her siblings, and she’s indifferent to the socialist and Zionist teachings that those around her espouse.

In contrast to these fragmented montages, a local theatre sequence is presented in a series of planimetic, deep-focus wide shots, with the characters being framed in full, rather than isolated into smaller components. While others debate and consume plays on a distanced, intellectualized level — arguing about plot points and character motivations — Esther’s response is more instinctive and purely emotional. She goes to the theatre primarily so that she may vicariously experience the feelings that escape her in reality. It would be easy to portray Esther as an innocent victim of a hostile environment able to find refuge in the world of make-believe. In truth, however, she is cruel, calculating and deeply alienating. She is unreasonably prickly, exploding at her brother when he praises an actress she dislikes. Although Esther’s attachment to the theatre seems to stem from a genuine passion and desire to free her emotions, she makes no qualms with using her acting talents as a way to secure social mobility. Most relationships she embarks on are rooted in opportunism. The closest thing she has to friendship is with Nathan (Ian Holm), a more experienced actor who offers to give her lessons for free; when pushed to begin a romance, she selects Philippe (Fabrice Desplechin), a renowned theatre critic and playwright who uses his influence to land her a number of high-profile roles. Esther is an observer ghost-walking through life, simply taking part in rituals because she believes that’s what is socially expected, but never experiencing the emotions she feels these rituals should arouse. As such, Esther regards others with a mixture of envy and awe, but seems to withhold affection, even when it’s offered to her.

Desplechin doesn’t simply “explain” away the reasons behind Esther’s emotional numbness in psychological terms, though the sporadic voiceover informs viewers that her hardened demeanour is a combination of environmental factors and an instinct for self-preservation. Despite bearing many of the trappings of social realist drama, Desplechin and cinematographer Eric Gautier’s cross-fades, iris effects and expressionistic lighting evoke a sense of classicism reminiscent of silent cinema and its precedents in theatre. Esther’s mental landscape is further expressed through several lyrical interludes, such as a jarringly blown-out dream sequence in which she imagines herself as the only human figure in a street filled with floating balloon people on strings. The opening act of the film, with its combination of working class drama, impressionism and magic realism, recalls the early work of Terence Davies, particularly in a time-hopping sequence which sees years of family dinners condensed into a single montage, with gradual fades collapsing the images into one another.

It is Esther’s near sociopathic opportunism that prevents Esther Kahn from registering as a simple idyllic tale of proletarian self-actualization, and transforms it into something altogether more complex and strange. In an early, seemingly non-sequitur scene, Esther speaks with her mother about the translation of the Jewish Bible, telling her that some parts have never been translated because there are no English language equivalents to the Yiddish phrases. In addition to establishing early on the centrality of her religious background to Esther’s social identity (later, Esther will refuse the advice to change her name to sound more genteel), this immediately establishes the film’s thematic focus on the gulf between meaning and external expression. Esther Kahn is a film about absence and presence, focusing on a character who, like Christopher Walken’s Harry Nash in Jonathan Demme’s great Who Am I This Time?, is only able to express herself through the words of others, and only feels comfortable expressing herself while pretending to be a different person. In the title role, Phoenix delivers an opaque but strikingly physical performance, reminiscent of the women in Charlie Chaplin’s films.

While Nathan sees the good in Esther, encouraging her to cultivate her talents and to develop a sense of empathy, her relationship with Philippe (which consumes the second half of the story) suggests a masochistic regression into narcissistic despair. He is the only one to truly see Esther’s ugly opportunistic side, perhaps because the serial womanizer recognizes in her a kindred spirit. Philippe uses Esther for sex, and she uses him for careerism. This is the mutual understanding on which their fling is based, and if Esther’s discovery of Philippe’s infidelity is the catalyst for her emotional breakdown, it seems less because she genuinely cared for him as a result of the realization that she’s been outfoxed. All this builds to a climax which sees Esther finally successfully reconcile her private life with her on-stage performance, using the mechanisms of theatre to fully experience an intensity of emotion that has long eluded her. That these emotions are primarily negative — envy, rejection, inadequacy — is secondary to the pure ecstasy of feeling. The night of Esther’s debut as the protagonist of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (translated by Philippe at Esther’s own suggestion), she finds herself consumed by rage at the sight of Philippe attending the opening night with his mistress Sylvia l’Italienne as his date, leading her to first fake sickness, then to chew broken glass in an attempt to escape having to perform.

This finale recalls that of Opening Night. Cassavetes’ film, made 25 years before Esther Kahn, climaxes with an actress’ personal disintegration culminating in an on-stage breakdown, with her own neuroses feeding into her characters and vice versa. Stylistically, the two finales also couldn’t be more different: Cassavetes ends his masterwork with an extended performance of the play-within-a-play itself. Although viewers have seen essentially the same material play out in the feature’s opening scene, they are now invited to watch it with the simultaneous knowledge of the psychodramatic exertions, the inner turmoil and the relentless process that goes into making a character like this breathe (despite the apparent seamlessness of the finished artwork), and hence appreciate the improvisations she wreaks upon the text. Esther Kahn infamously ends on a moment of ellipses: Esther walks onto the stage, but the camera doesn’t follow her. Instead, it focuses on the audience’s faces, which light up as the narrator informs viewers that Esther became a true actress at that moment. Throughout the entire narrative, in fact, the viewer never sees Esther perform. It’s unclear whether or not she is genuinely skilled, or merely pushy enough to gain a reputation despite a lack of polish. These two opposing takes on similar subject matter reveal the startlingly different perspectives of the two films. Gena Rowlands’ Myrtle in Opening Night fights against the over-determined, prescribed on-stage role by injecting it with the hysteria and nuance of her real personality. Esther Kahn is only able to feel like a human when she’s on-stage, pretending to be somebody else.

James Slaymaker (@jmslaymaker) is a filmmaker and freelance journalist from Dorset, UK. His writing has been featured in MUBI Notebook, Senses of Cinema, Film International, Little White Lies, Sound on Sight, Popmatters, Alternate Takes, Bright Lights Film Journal, College Humour, The Vulgar Cinema and McSweeney’s, among others. He’s also contributed a chapter to the upcoming book ‘Hard to Get: The Films and Female Characters of Howard Hawks.’ His first book, ‘Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann,’ is due for publication early next year. 

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