REVIEW: Danish Actress Paprika Steen Shines in Modest But Moving Applause
Martin Zandvliet's Applause is a small movie with modest ambitions, and accordingly, it packs only a modest emotional punch. But as a showcase for its star, the Danish actress Paprika Steen (possibly best known for her role in Thomas Vinterberg's 1998 Dogme picture The Celebration), it's still rewarding in its own quiet, jarring way.
Steen plays Thea, an inching-past-middle-aged actress who believes she's kicked her heavy drinking habit and hopes to rebuild her fractured relationship with her two young sons. The movie opens with sequences of Thea performing on-stage in a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (actually, it's footage of Steen's own performance in a fairly recent Copenhagen production of the play), and a series of claustrophobically tight close-ups clue us in, not so subtly, to the fact that Steen/Thea's boozy-desperate portrayal of Martha is not so far off from reality.
But Steen is an intuitive actress, and she knows when to stretch out and when to reel back. In Thea's off-stage hours, we see her as a troubled woman who, it seems, has never taken time to sort through her own jumble of personal qualities. She has apparently cultivated the bad ones (her capacity for manipulation; her sudden impulses toward cruelty, as when she dresses down the compliant, sweet young woman who works as her dresser, played by Malou Reymann) and downplayed the good ones (a sense of duty toward her family, at least on her best days; a wry if occasionally bitter sense of humor). Still, as Steen plays Thea, you can't help feeling for her. She meets her ex-husband, Christian (Michael Falch), at a café to ask if she can be allowed to see the couple's two sons -- the marriage officially imploded 18 months before, and Thea has been estranged from the children as the result of some vaguely hinted-at horror show -- and she snarls at two young women who recognize her and attempt to take her picture. "I hate ordinary people," she tells Christian, hardly a promising precursor to any mother-and-child reunion. Still, Christian relents, and a scene in which Thea waits nervously in his kitchen, making awkward chit-chat with his new wife (played by Sara-Marie Maltha) as she waits for her two boys to appear, proves just how vulnerable Thea is, and suggests that she really is hoping to change.
Applause is Zandvliet's first feature, and he co-wrote it (with Anders Frithiof August) around Steen's strengths. His approach is nakedly Cassavetes-like, which means he both allows his lead actress to shine and to be something of a horror show. But Steen walks the line deftly and with dignity, as well as with an admirable degree of fearlessness. There are scenes in which Thea looks decidedly older than her real age, whatever that may be -- she seems to be carrying all her troubles in the heavy, dark half-moon baggage beneath her eyes. At one point, as she readies herself to go on-stage, she manipulates her crepey skin with her fingers and fishes for either an insult or a compliment from her young dresser: How does it look, she wants to know. "Old? Tired? Dog skin?"
There is no right answer, as both Thea and her dresser know. But the traps Thea sets for others clamp down most tightly on herself, as Steen makes clear in this tough, un-self-pitying little performance. Steen has no vanity here, and there are moments when, with her tired eyes and drooping mouth, her Thea looks downright awful. But then an uninhibited smile, bidden seemingly out of nowhere, will cross her face, and it's clear this deeply troubled woman still has some radiance in her, struggling to get out. Applause ends just before that light breaks through. But Steen's performance leaves us with a definite promise of it, and that's enough.