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 influence—of Gena Rowlands’s Myrtle Gordon, another aging, alcoholic actress, in John Cassavetes’s 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 Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998). As besotted as Zandvliet obviously is with the combustible Cassavetes–Rowlands collaboration from 1977—one of the best about the echo-chamber effect of performers playing performers and the disintegration between stage and real life—his film too often relies on slack maternal-weepie material. The drama of Thea’s 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 Steen’s 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 repellent—which 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 actress’s 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 member’s testimonial, and jokingly tosses off, “Maybe they were killed in a car accident” to Christian’s 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 play—the mercurial diva of a certain age—without 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, Steen’s subtle calibrations of self-hatred and raging narcissism exhilarate.
And yet this memorable, soaring performance must remain tethered to the ground by Zandvliet’s 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 Steen’s actual, recent performance in Copenhagen as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Too often, Zandvliet uses lines from Steen onstage in Virginia Woolf to comment on the action in Thea’s life. “Total war,” Steen as Martha declares to an obscured George in Edward Albee’s play, right before Thea arranges a highly contentious meeting with Social Services to get her boys back. Steen delivers Thea’s funniest (and most touching) revelation to her sons—“You’re the lucky children of a crazy mother. Cool, isn’t 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.