When the late Pauline Kael saw the original 219-minute cut of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” back in 1980, she famously wrote that while she found it easy to see what should be cut, she was at a loss to suggest what to keep. A viewer coming out of Arnaud Desplechin’s 145-minute “Esther Kahn” will know what she meant. This is an ambitious, serious film that manages to do virtually everything wrong; sitting through it is something akin to an act of cinematic penance. At one point early on the title character is described as “seeming to be asleep, as in a brooding lethargy.” It’s a description that applies equally well to the movie.
Adapted by Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu from a story by Arthur Symons, a little-known British writer, “Esther” is–with the exception of several scenes of Yiddish theatre–in English, but its halting, clumsy tone is evidence that it’s the work of a filmmaker not entirely comfortable with the language; and the fact that the scripters resort to stiff, portentous narration from some omniscient observer (presumably Symons) that periodically intrudes to inform us of the characters’ motives, emotions and transformations is proof that they haven’t dramatized the material successfully. The picture tells the story of Esther (Summer Phoenix), a rather slow Jewish girl from a large family who becomes enchanted with the theatrical life and, under the tutelage of veteran actor Nathan Queller (Ian Holm), takes to the stage and gains recognition as a great talent. She takes as a lover a playwright/critic, Philip (Fabrice Desplechin), who teaches her much but drops her brutally on the eve of her debut in what is apparently his own translation of “Hedda Gabler.” Distraught, she argues her inability to go on and even–in a patently ridiculous turn–actually eats glass to persuade her collaborators to replace her, but they solicitously see her through all these travails and help her reveal her thespian greatness.
There might have been an interesting, though oddly old-fashioned, film about a woman’s finding her muse in Symons’ tale, but Desplechin certainly hasn’t teased it out. Instead what he’s contrived is a turgid, elephantine period piece in which the motivations remain obstinately obscure and the plot transitions lack smoothness (the fault, one presumes, of editor Harve de Luze). (To be fair, Desplechin claims that he was attempting to mimic the terseness and unusual rhythm of the original, but if he and De Luze have succeeded, Symons’ work must be clumsy indeed.) Nor did the director choose, or use, his cast very wisely. The amateurish Phoenix remains a blank throughout, and in the latter scenes, when she’s supposed to have developed into a brilliantly talented actress, she’s laughably unconvincing; in the portions we’re shown of the Ibsen performance (largely overlaid with music and narration) she barely registers, and the accolades Esther supposedly receives afterward are totally inexplicable. (One compliment she’s accorded, to the effect that “She seemed scarcely to be acting,” comes across as all too accurate, though in an unintended way.) Holm, on the other hand, tries to compensate by overacting fiercely, much the way he did in “Joe Gould’s Secret.” His scenes are constructed like bad acting-class monologues, and even someone of Holm’s ability can’t rescue them. Fabrice Desplechin is completely miscast as the unfaithful Philip. Why a British drama critic should speak with a pronounced French accent is never explained, and how he could learn Norwegian quickly enough to provide a stage-worthy translation of Ibsen simply ignored; but even had these narrative difficulties been dealt with, the flatness of Desplechin’s acting would remain. None of the other performers are impressive other than visually, though one must mention Frances Barber’s turn as Esther’s mother; she seems a good actress, but the lack of support the character evinces for her daughter’s career is a plot point that remains curiously unexplored, and the performance suffers badly as a result.
“Esther Kahn” has been handsomely mounted by designers Jon Henson and Nathalie Duerinckx, and the cinematography of Eric Gautier gives the images a soft, almost luminous glow; Howard Shore’s score is also nicely supportive. But while some individual moments impress the eye and soothe the ear, their beauty can do little to salvage the narrative miscalculations. Perhaps “Esther Kahn” is a fine short story, but it’s an excruciating long film.