After her parts in Dogme 95 films like The Celebration and The Idiots it's easy to see why Danish directors adore Paprika Steen: she throws it all in. The level of commitment she provides this small woman-on-self-destruct drama is herculean. Thea (Steen) is an actress of some renown and a semi-recovering alcoholic. As the crisis of detoxing can't overwhelm the crisis of her ego she distracts herself by making wild gestures to reenter her children's lives. Her attempts are so deeply dysfunctional they hurt to watch; that Steen makes the character engaging nonetheless is a considerable feat. The script presents complex enough situations for the characters but the overarching story doesn't feel particularly purposeful. Regardless, anyone interested in acting would have to look hard to find a better performance to study, which suggests the film could find itself an educational market to support the otherwise small theatrical returns it will receive, even with a name like Steen behind it.
Thea is playing Martha in a stripped down version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It'd be nice to think she's cruel to her stagehand in an effort to get into character (perhaps she drinks backstage to get into character, too) but everyone draws her ire, even the fans that excitedly flirt or invade her space. We never see her co-star, a situation that suggests those strong enough to share her workspace are also smart enough to avoid her. Even in her element she's a mesmerizing fountain of venom. Her ex-husband Christian (Michael Falch) is dangerously patient with her. Remarried to a psychologist and younger woman named Maika (Sara-Marie Maltha), Christian seems not only to have moved on from the harrowing experience of Thea but has provided the two sons they share more secure conditions in so doing. When Thea realizes the gap she's left in her life by leaving her sons she wants to be their mother again, but besides having missed the kid's younger years, she's desperately ill-equipped to care for anyone. Perhaps, as they say, we are each the protagonist of our own lives, but certainly there are healthy bounds to this. Clearly Thea is the demonstration of this protagonist principle gone amuck.
Though the world around Thea presents her in various conditions of tension and resolution, Thea relentlessly builds her experiences around melodramatic highs and lows. When she realizes she's got no capacities as a parent she angles for self-destructive behavior and ends up suffering a wickedly uncomfortable bar pickup. She takes him home, he reminds her they've slept together before and, via a half-assed battle of wills, you feel your interest in her dwindling. This is the larger issue with Applause and the reason the film hinges on its star: without a sizeable actress in the lead the film could border torturous. The feature directorial debut of Martin Zandvliet, Applause has moments of flourish and moments that reach towards something as pared down as Thea's play, but it ultimately can't match the candor Steen brings to the screen. Really, little can.
Distributor: Wide World Motion Picture Corporation
Cast: Paprika Steen, Michael Falch, Sara-Marie Maltha, Shanti Roney and Otto Leonard Steen Rieks
Director: Martin Zandvliet
Screenwriter: Anders Frithioth August and Martin Zandvliet
Producers: Mikael Chr. Rieks
Genre: Drama; Danish-language, subtitled
Rating: R for language.
Running time: 85 min
Release date: December 3 LA, January 21 NY