Martin Pieter Zandvliet’s Applause is mostly a showcase for Paprika Steen’s singular performance. As Thea, an actress and “recovering” alcoholic who strives to grow closer to the children she’s alienated due to her addiction and arrogance, Steen exudes an expressive physicality that’s laced with a disarming hint of artificiality, as though there wasn’t a separation between her work on the stage and her real-life duties. It’s the implication that Thea is constantly in performance mode that drives much this lean character study, as Zandvliet frequently interrupts the action by placing sequences of Thea performing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that grow increasingly surreal and less tethered to reality as her two lives bleed into one another. Thea is also forever made up to look stage-ready (even while taking a bath), and yet her attempts to put a pretty face on an ugly personality is given a nuanced complexity by Steen, who, with every subtle glare and passive berating, shows a fearlessness in fully mining her character’s unpleasant psyche.
Zandvliet’s stripped-down aesthetic recalls the essence of the Dogme 95 movement, but the way in which various plot and technical elements are eschewed seems to work as a means to explicate Thea’s role in the film’s world. The closest Thea has to a friend is the stagehand she’s always eager to insult, and every attempt at reaching out to someone, especially her ex-husband’s wife, are more in the service of Thea’s self-interest rather than a sudden friendliness. Steen’s performance benefits from Zandvliet’s minimalism, as the filmmaker never exactly elaborates on Thea’s thoughts; he frequently ends scenes focusing on a close-up of the character’s deadpan face, but the way in which Steen has dramatized Thea, and how the filmmaker captures the performance, it’s hard to tell whether Thea will only sit in complacency or flip over a table. Zandvliet, however, creates a bit too on the nose of a motif for Thea’s ostracism from her family when the black-clad actress is continually placed in overexposed white rooms.
Applause is a melodrama that teeters on the brink of exploding for its duration, and when it eventually does, the final moments are subverted by a shrewd approach by both Steen and Zandvliet. The idea of Thea always performing bubbles over in the climax, where it appears Thea herself now truly believes she’s always giving a performance. Her final actions aren’t rational in a real-world sense, it’s just that they would be best for the drama of the story that is her life, playing out in front of an audience that isn’t watching. This gives the film a modest self-awareness, which comes to the fore in the final scene. Thea, or rather, Steen, relays to the poor stagehand her feelings about her great performance she’s just given as Martha in Edward Albee’s play. The scene is just one big pat on the back to Steen, but after her work in Applause, it’s ultimately warranted.
Kino’s transfer is vivid in detail, but an imbalance in colors is evident throughout, especially during scenes that feature heightened overexposure; whites in particular can be an eyesore, bleeding into the more earthy tones of the film’s color palette. The unassuming sound is rich enough, with dialogue clear and out front and ambient noises subtly filling out the background.
Paprika Steen’s astounding performance isn’t given any favors in Kino’s barebones release of this post-Dogme 95 character study.