Esther Kahn

Summer Phoenix gives a passionate performance as an aloof, stubborn, quietly ambitious Jew in late-Victorian London who transforms herself from a poor immigrant into a glowing stage actress (2000). French director Arnaud Desplechin (My Sex Life . . . or How I Got Into an Argument), adapting a story by British poet Arthur Symons, avoids the florid romanticism of backstage drama, which accents every triumph and setback; his terse, understated narrative style permits an almost voyeuristic examination of the young Esther, filmed with close-up intimacy by Eric Gautier, as she methodically learns her craft and advances her career. The last half hour transpires during an opening-night performance of Hedda Gabler, in which Esther's jealousy and desperation may be genuine but may also have been conjured for her role. The plot device might seem convenient, but it pinpoints the mystery and essence of acting. With Ian Holm and Frances Barber. 145 min.

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