As both a backstage theater drama and a coming of age tale, Esther Kahn gets quite a bit of thematic richness blending and juxtaposing those genres: Esther performatively adopts various growing milestones to enhance her acting; and her true maturation happens onstage. By the end Esther has learned that to serve herself is to betray her audience, and vice versa. In the finale, her reality and the stage quite literally merge in a terrifying, self-destructive way.
Summer Phoenix plays the title character as if she has no idea what to do in front of a camera, and the character no idea what to do on stage. Esther is intensely, magnetically naive. It’s a peculiar choice for a character who is supposed to be a natural thespian. I can see why she was controversial, but, for me, the performance works: It emphasizes how much of a blank slate Esther is, an empty vessel to absorb then project life rather than live it.
The film is all dull, claustrophobic shots with dim lighting. The backstage and backstreets are indistinguishable. Rarely have I seen the look of a film so perfectly aligned with the story it tells; Desplechin and cinematographer Eric Gautier construct an intentionally stagey, dimly-lit style that amplifies everything else the movie is doing on both a performance and a story level.
Nonetheless, it’s an exhausting film to look at for nearly two and a half hours. Some of the characters are flat or seemingly discarded, as if they survived earlier drafts of the screenplay for no clear reason. And a few plot points are quite predictable — it is a coming of age story, after all, a genre not known for narrative innovation.
It’s a movie I admire more than I enjoy, but I admire it a lot. I definitely recommend it to anyone with a stomach for arty period films.
Very Good (6/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.