A Big Hand for Paprika Steen in Applause
Appearing in every frame of Applause, Thea Barfoed (Paprika Steen), an aging actress and recovering alcoholic trying to get her life back together, is a woman under the influenceof Gena Rowlandss Myrtle Gordon, another aging, alcoholic actress, in John Cassavetess Opening Night.
Danish director Martin Pieter Zandvliet, making his feature debut, co-wrote Applause with Anders Frithiof August expressly as a vehicle for Steen, a Dogme vet best known stateside for her work in Thomas Vinterbergs The Celebration (1998). As besotted as Zandvliet obviously is with the combustible CassavetesRowlands collaboration from 1977one of the best about the echo-chamber effect of performers playing performers and the disintegration between stage and real lifehis film too often relies on slack maternal-weepie material. The drama of Theas offstage life revolves around her increasingly desperate demands for more involvement in the lives of the two young sons (the older of whom is played by Steens own child) she renounced custody of after her divorce from Christian (Michael Falch) 18 months ago. And though Steen, who never strikes a false note, is immensely pleasurable to watch in every scene, these mother-and-child reunions droop with too much sticky sentiment.
More satisfying are the moments when Thea is thoroughly repellentwhich is often. I hate ordinary people, she hisses to Christian in an early scene at a café, where their delicate discussion of the possibility of her resuming contact with her kids is interrupted by two fans snapping photos on their phones. The cracked actresss contempt, wildly inappropriate remarks, and total solipsism give Applause much-needed venom and wit: Thea makes no attempt to suppress her yawns at an AA meeting during one members testimonial, and jokingly tosses off, Maybe they were killed in a car accident to Christians new wife when he and her sons are a few minutes late for an appointment. Steen, who is 46 and is often shot in stark close-up, navigates one of the trickiest roles to playthe mercurial diva of a certain agewithout relying on camp shorthand. Merciless in her own self-assessment, Thea delivers a withering monologue on her dog skin to her twentyish dresser before destroying her in one of many passive-aggressive attacks. Usually an enervating process to witness onscreen, Steens subtle calibrations of self-hatred and raging narcissism exhilarate.
And yet this memorable, soaring performance must remain tethered to the ground by Zandvliets frustrating literal-mindedness. Whereas Opening Night delves into the alchemy of meta-acting, focusing on Rowlands/Myrtle transforming into her role within a role onstage, Applause skips the potentially mesmerizing process altogether, simply interspersing footage from Steens actual, recent performance in Copenhagen as Martha in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Too often, Zandvliet uses lines from Steen onstage in Virginia Woolf to comment on the action in Theas life. Total war, Steen as Martha declares to an obscured George in Edward Albees play, right before Thea arranges a highly contentious meeting with Social Services to get her boys back. Steen delivers Theas funniest (and most touching) revelation to her sonsYoure the lucky children of a crazy mother. Cool, isnt it?with the aplomb of an actress who knows the fine distinctions between big, messy emotions and scenery-chewing. If only her director had similar confidence.
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