In the exquisite Danish film Applause, Dogme 95 muse Paprika Steen plays Thea, a successful stage actress and recovering alcoholic trying to get custody of her children. Borrowing some of that Scandinavian movement’s most appealing qualities (a dizzily intimate handheld camera, unexpected ellipses, and hesitating focus), director Martin Zandvliet follows Thea in the après-coup of the rock-bottom of addiction and maternal abandonment.
Steen’s performance is so mesmerizingly nuanced, her face so overwhelmed, almost twitching with complexity, it’s like watching a volcanic explosion inside a small, very delicate flask. Her skin, which Thea calls “human packaging,” works to camouflage the fractured structure inside her that is always about to collapse. Is she going to flee? Is she going to claw somebody’s face? Or lick her lips before coyly exiting the frame? Hers is the body of the hysteric, as Freud would have said, steeped in jewelry and makeup, anything to cover up the sick corpse that lies beneath. Thea is never not playing a role. In fact, she seems to be playing herself in the stage play that dots the film’s narrative and somebody else in her “real” life. “You’d probably stay home all day if you had my skin,” she tells her wardrobe assistant.
Fresh out of rehab, Thea doesn’t drink anymore (except when she does) and is now able to see her two young sons a couple of hours a week. Ex-husband Christian (Michael Falch), who has remarried, is supportive of Thea’s reconnection with the children but is unwilling to give in to her relentless demands for more time with them. Her insistence in spending time with her kids, though, is less about maternal love than self-interest: She’s hoping their presence can bring her what rehab couldn’t.
The drama in Applause works better when it’s stuck in the characters’ throat like a lump in a limbo, unable to be completely swallowed nor spitted out. The few scenes in which Thea actually loses it drive the narrative dangerously close to obvious territory, when the film’s greatest quality is the way it understands the intensity of subtlety, of preludes, of ambiguity. As when she takes her boys for a car ride in the woods instead of driving them to school: She could either stage an innocent impromptu picnic…or drown them in a river.
The broken diva diligently working the mink, the heels, and the extended eye lashes despite the existential metastasis that is happening inside is, of course, a fascinating, and uncanny, cinematic figure. We feel her anxiety and her despair yet all we see is beauty. In this sense, there’s something of Agnès Varda’s masterpiece Cléo from 5 to 7 here. And even of the drag queen Rosário in João Pedro Rodrigues’s To Die Like a Man. A similar feminine trick that manages to transform misery into some kind of irresistible spell.