Drama of the Gifted Child

Arnaud Desplechin's Spiritual Adventures

Ambiguity is a valued commodity for Desplechin, who says he always allows for an element of surprise on set. "If it's written in the script that the actors are crying, I ask if they can play the scene laughing—maybe it will make more sense." The approach is telling: The psychology in Esther Kahn may seem opaque or even counterintuitive, but its sucker punches are coherent on a gut level. Early in the film, Esther whispers to herself: "I want to be revenged." "I don't know what she means by that," says Desplechin, "but I know she's right." The film purposefully renders moot the question of Esther's talent, notably in her final performance. "I was not filming Hedda; I was filming Esther, and that's why I suppressed the sound," says Desplechin. But he adds: "I do think she might be a great actress."

Is it fair to say then that Esther Kahn equates acting ability with personal hollowness? Desplechin laughs. "That's a paradox, but I think it's the right one. You need to be empty if you want to fill the stage. There's a great modesty in acting. Some people think that to be an actor, you have to show yourself, but perhaps you just have to admit that you are empty. When you are filmed, you have to give something that is so tiny and so fundamental at the same time. The Esther that Summer gave? It's Esther. It's finished. She did it."

Desplechin has completed two scripts since wrapping Esther Kahn—one "a sort of comedy called Kings and Queens," the other an adaptation of the Edward Bond play In the Company of Men (no relation to Neil LaBute), "a real film noir with a lot of baddies, about weapons dealing." The star, for her part, is unconcerned that her breakthrough performance is not only uncategorizable but perhaps definitive. It's hardly an ingenue's typical résumé booster (reviewers have written it off as bad acting, or worse, non-acting). "Esther might be slightly animalistic, and dumb, if you will," says Phoenix, who will next be seen in Henry Bean's The Believer. "But to me, she's a diamond in the rough, a phenomenal force, a Sarah Bernhardt surviving against all odds. People can confuse me with Esther. I don't mind."

The birth of an actress: Esther Kahn's Phoenix
photo: Richard Mitchell
The birth of an actress: Esther Kahn's Phoenix

Related Story:
J. Hoberman's review of Esther Kahn

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