Esther Kahn: Notes on the Beloved Object
Yesterday’s screening of Esther Kahn was of the shorter cut (usually reported as 142 minutes long, though I believe it ran somewhat longer) that Desplechin created after the film’s premiere at Cannes 2000. I’d rather see the longer Cannes version (163 minutes), but the shorter one is no travesty. I don’t know of a comprehensive analysis of the differences between the versions; here are the cuts that I’ve noted.
1) Esther’s dream of a world populated by men with balloons for heads is completely excised from the short version. The dream scene is interesting, but I don’t miss it that much.
2) Philippe’s long tavern monologue about his imprisonment and subsequent mental breakdown is completely excised from the short version. Again, I can handle this loss.
3) The beautiful and mysterious scene of Esther and her father talking while crouching on the river bank is shortened. I quite regret this.
4) Esther’s negotiation with her family to work out a payment plan that will allow her to go on the stage is completely excised. I miss this scene.
I’ve written about Esther before, and so have only incremental observations to offer. What struck me most on this viewing is the streak of wild comedy that weaves through the film, and which is perhaps more obvious on repeat viewings. Esther’s quasi-autistic emotional detachment from the events of her life, though taken seriously by the filmmakers, means that her actions have a weird, willed fixity that, if you believe Henri Bergson, is intrinsically comic. And the more somber the scene, the more Esther’s automaton-like reactions are set into relief. Last night I chuckled to myself through most of the movie, and became downright mirthful at the film’s more frightening moments. To appreciate the originality of Summer Phoenix’s performance, one need only consider the scene where romantic despair makes her beat her face with her fists until it is swollen: at one unexpectedly fierce blow, her eyebrows go high in surprise, and her scientific detachment continues as she checks her jaw for major damage. A few scenes later, when Esther looks at a broken glass and does a dispassionate, silent analysis of how much damage she can inflict upon herself with it, I broke out in laughter that might reasonably have seemed inappropriate to some audience members.
It goes without saying that Desplechin’s mastery at creating ambience is a big factor in the film’s originality. But it’s interesting to think about what principles Desplechin follows – because there are all kinds of ambience, after all. In the family scenes, here and in other films, Desplechin seems to want to evoke a social paradise of intimacy and accessibility, despite (or rather because of) the film’s content pointing in a different and more uncomfortable direction. As for the evocative theater environments that dominate the last movement of the film, we experience the romance of darkened, quiet rooms (again, in counterpoint to the mounting tension of the story) and the rabbit-hutch feeling of bit players weaving in and out of dressing rooms and antechambers, all serving the purpose of the group mind that must place Esther on the stage at all costs. In Desplechin’s work, there is a backbeat – not a theme, but a vibration – of idyll, of heaven on earth, of the sum total of loved ones gathered in one place.
When one loves a film as much as I love Esther, things get confusing sometimes. My early, giddy feeling about the mystery of Phoenix’s performance - that it was impossible to tell whether she was an actress or just the right person on the right set – has passed. At a minimum, Esther has a Cockney accent, and I now know that Phoenix was raised in Florida and California. And she was compelling in the only other film I've seen her in, Henry Bean's The Believer. But it’s still exciting to watch Summer Phoenix impersonating Esther Kahn impersonating someone who might be able to do a good Hedda Gabler, and never quite to be sure which layer of the object is currently catching the light. Back in the early days of Esthermania, when Gabe Klinger said he was looking for a girlfriend like Esther Kahn, I urged him to reconsider. But I have a habit of wandering past the chic clothing boutique on Ludlow that Phoenix co-owns, hoping to catch a glimpse of her inside, even though I understand she’s in Los Angeles having babies with Casey Affleck.