Esther Kahn  (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

The film begins with the adolescence of Esther Kahn, a girl from a working class Jewish family in Victorian England. She is an odd girl, sullen and uncommunicative except when she explodes in feral rages. Except for the outbursts, she seems incapable of feeling or expressing any emotions.  Her family doesn't know whether she is retarded or autistic or just nutty. The rest of her family engages in various political and artistic discussions, but Esther has no interest in these discussions, or perhaps no ability to understand them.

You can imagine her family's surprise when she announces one day that she will become an actress. You can imagine that their patronizing amusement turns to absolute astonishment when she actually starts to move up in the theater world, taking ever larger roles in ever more important productions. Esther herself doesn't really seem to understand or care about the intellectual basis of the theater or acting. She simply follows her instincts, first mesmerized by the stage, then actually developing some form of craft under the tutelage of an aging actor with limited talent, but infinite appreciation for the art of acting.

As time goes on, her acting and her life work in cycles. In order to become a better actress, she must experience more in life. In order to emerge as an emotional human, she must become a better actress.

The film is languorously paced and two and a half hours long, and is opaque enough that even the person who wrote the official summary at IMDb suggests it is about an 18th century actress. It would be a challenge for an 18th century actress to be performing in an Ibsen play, although it would be a unique interpretation of A Doll's House if the woman playing Nora were 120 years old. Despite these flaws, I would normally recommend this as a sensitive arthouse film for the aesthetes who love the theater. In that sense, Esther Kahn is similar to "Illuminata". The reason I am not saying that is that this film has a great gaping flaw in it.

The lead actress, who dominates the camera in nearly every scene for two and a half hours, needs to show the transformation of Esther as a person and as an actress. This film, in order to work, requires an excellent lead actress to carry it. It needs Gwyneth or Kate Winslet or someone of their caliber. Instead, the lead is played by a complete non-actress named Summer Phoenix, who seems exactly the same at the end of her transformation as she was at the beginning.

If the film failed to show her transformation as a person, it didn't even try to show her development as an actress. Instead, the other characters commented on how she was doing. I may be wrong, but I think that if Winslet had been in the lead, they would have shown her performing at the various stages in her career, thus demonstrating her progress. They way they ended up doing it, with narration, not only sucked the life out of the dramatic structure of the film, but simply wasn't believable. They talked about her doing so well that she had a luxury apartment. Then they talked about her getting the lead in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. Every time they made such a comment, I wondered if I was misunderstanding what they were saying, because Esther still seemed like the same 'tard she had been in adolescence. Every time they showed her on stage, she was walking robotically with a fish-eyed stare. Every time they showed her delivering lines offstage or in rehearsal, her interpretations of Ibsen were about at the level you might expect from Sylvester Stallone.

Yo, Nora.

Summer's lack of acting ability was underscored by an irony in the casting. The brilliant actor Ian Holm played a bad actor. The non actor Summer Phoenix played a good actor. Yet Holm's comically bad efforts were still better than the best delivery ol' Summer could summon.

Many movies can survive one weak performance, even from the lead performer, but it just isn't possible when the lead is playing the part of a great actor. It worked out about the same as casting Chris Klein as Edmund Kean - even if they never showed him acting, could you believe Chris was the greatest performer of his day?

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen anamorphic 1.85:1.

  • one deleted scene



  • Summer Phoenix is completely naked before and during a sex scene in which she loses her virginity. She looks great.
  • Frances Barber does frontal nudity in a deleted scene on the DVD.

Tuna's comments in yellow:

Scoopy's review made it sound so unappealing that I passed on it for two years.

Summer Phoenix plays a young Jewish girl in turn of the century London, poor, overworked, and drawn within herself. Then she discovers the theater. As hard as it is for her parents to believe, she not only gets a small role, but gets increasingly better parts. First, an older actor coaches her, then a drama critic, who also takes her virginity. At this point, she has not yet begun to "feel" yet, and doesn't feel like she is really an actress, but when she lands a lead in Hedda Gabbler, the critic screws around on her, and the pain of discovering him with another woman is enough to stimulate her emotions, finally turning her into a great actress, after a mere 163 minutes of running time.

And therein lies the problem in what could have been a boring, artsy and very slow examination of the process of becoming an actor, but of potential interest. Scoopy blamed Phoenix for the total failure of the film, and thought that a more capable performer might have made the film of value to a narrow audience. While I agree that her one note performance is exactly what is wrong with the film, I am not sure it is her fault.
Comparing her Khan character to the real Phoenix in an interview, her Esther Kahn was different in every way from her normal persona. If the problem is not one of acting ability, then the only possible explanation for the one note performance is bad direction. That seems even more plausible considering that Arnaud Desplechin had never directed in English before. At any rate, it is entirely unwatchable.  It could never have been more than an art house flick, but didn't even manage that.

The Critics Vote

  • There are no comments from major reviewers except the BBC. The reviews averaged about two stars, but ranged from half a star up to three stars.  BBC 2/5, 2.5/5, NY Post 0.5/4.

The People Vote ...

  • There was no theatrical release in the USA except for a couple of arthouse theaters two years after the film was made.
Special Scoopy awards for excellence in criticism go to:

The Orders of Merit in accuracy: Megan Turner of the New York Post. "How do you inject life into a film whose central character is dull, slow, stupid and grim? If you're Arnaud Desplechin, you don't. The French director has turned out nearly 2 1/2 hours of unfocused, excruciatingly tedious cinema that, half an hour in, starts making water torture seem appealing. Summer Phoenix wanders joylessly through this insufferable film as the title character, the emotionally repressed daughter of poor Jewish tailors living in London's East End at the turn of the century. Supposedly, she only truly comes alive at the theater and so pursues a career as a stage actress, despite having no discernible talent whatsoever. While the film's unrelentingly drab palette brightens when the action shifts to the world of the theater, Phoenix's lobotomized stare and deathly monotone remain unchanged."

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a D (both reviewers). I do think the film could have been a good arthouse flick with the right leading actress, but there is no way it could have been transformed into a successful commercial venture under any circumstances, even with Paltrow in the lead. It takes too long to get where it's going, and although it's long on characterization, it's painfully short on dramatic development and payoff. The American distributors realized that the film was without commercial merit, and there was no theatrical release in the USA.

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