The exquisite yet demanding "Esther Kahn" is one of the most unusual and persuasive explorations of the flowering of an actor. It unfolds in a low-key manner in the mind of its title character, for whom life does not become real until she discovers the theater. It is also a superbly evoked period piece set in London at the turn of the 20th century, where Esther (Summer Phoenix) grows up in grim, industrial East End as one of four children of a poor Jewish immigrant tailor (Laszlo Szabo).
From earliest childhood Esther feels detached from her family, whose home is also its sweatshop. While the rest of the family lives a hard-working everyday existence, she seems as if she is sleepwalking, going through the motions and feeling nothing. Yet as she matures into a dark-haired beauty, she ponders such philosophical questions as "If I am dreaming, how can I know the world exists?" Will she ever experience "real life"? she wonders. Paradoxically, she receives her answer when she attends her first play, a florid Yiddish production staged in a quaintly baroque theater. At last, life seems real to her, but at the same time she realizes the play's leading actress is terrible. In a flash, she analyzes all that's wrong with her performance and suddenly senses she could do it herself and do it right. It's not long before Esther, now a factory worker, has won her first chance to act. Her supreme self-confidence and sure intuition guarantee a swift rise in the theater.
What makes "Esther Kahn" so demanding is that it progresses in such a low-key manner that it risks monotony. But it's worth the concentration because all the while, writer-director Arnaud Desplechin and his co-writer, Emmanuel Bourdieu, in adapting an Arthur Symons short story, are building to a grand climax.
Phoenix meets the challenge of making so reticent and affectless a woman as Esther alive and involving with her beauty and intelligence, and the glimpses we have of Esther acting on stage are also impressive. Desplechin has said he was inspired by Truffaut's "The Wild Child" in the way he views Esther and her coming of age amid such strong feelings of alienation from her family and environment.
Esther may be self-absorbed in her art, but she takes everything in, especially from Fabrice Desplechin's Phillip as a suave, sophisticated drama critic who becomes her mentor and coach. Esther is appreciative of Phillip, but the more captivated she becomes by all that he teaches her, the less attention she pays to him as a lover. Ian Holm has the crucial role of a kindly veteran actor in the "Hedda Gabler" production who warns her that she "can't refuse life."
"Esther Kahn" begins as a shadowy film that progresses from dark to increasing light. It has been stunningly photographed by Eric Gautier and has a wonderfully expressive score composed by Howard Shore.
As an engaging portrait of an actress and life in the theater, "Esther Kahn" recalls William Wyler's masterful, underrated "Carrie," with Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier, and John Turturro's 1999 "Illuminata," a rhapsodic celebration of love and life in theater, set in 1905 Manhattan.
But in its understated tone and concern for a performer's interior life and imagination "Esther Kahn" is closer in spirit to Stanley Kwan's "Actress," about the life of a Shanghai film star of the '20s and '30s, Ruan Ling-yu, and also Kon Ichikawa's "Actress," about the great Japanese screen star Kinuyo Tanaka, famed for her collaborations with master director Kenji Mizoguchi. "Esther Kahn" is arguably more venturesome and insightful than any of them.
Unrated. Times guidelines: some nudity, sensuality and blunt language.
An Empire Pictures release of a Franco-British co-production of Why Not Productions and Les Films Alain Sarde, France 2 Cinema, France 3 Cinema, Zephyr Films (UK) in association with Le Studio Canal Plus. Writer-director Arnaud Desplechin. Producers Oury Milshtein, Waldo Roeg. Co-writer Emmanuel Bourdieu. Based on a short story by Arthur Symons. Cinematographer Eric Gautier. Costumes Nathalie Duerinckx. Art director Jon Henson. Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes.
At the Fairfax Cinemas, Beverly Boulevard at Fairfax Avenue, L.A., (323) 655-4010, and the Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811.