Though utterly convincing as a renowned theater actress, it’s clear from her work in Applause that Paprika Steen has a face for the camera. With thin, pursed lips, large eyes ringed with mascara, and a mane of unruly, dirty-blond locks, Steen’s visage is both weary and expectant, worn with experience yet possessing a fierce vitality and desire. Whole stretches of Applause seem to consist of little more than a variety of close-ups, with director Martin Zandvliet content to turn on his DV camera and simply observe her, riding the waves of bitterness, determination, and creeping, corrosive self-awareness that wash over—and occasionally explode throughout—Steen’s ever-expressive features.
One expects nothing less than a charismatic performance here. Setting aside her considerable on-screen magnetism, Steen is handed one of those plum, actress-playing-an-actress roles that practically cries out for delicious diva theatrics. And in its opening scenes, it appears that Applause will give us our fill. Within 10 minutes, Steen’s Thea Barfoed has berated her assistant, slugged back a shot of something or other between acts, and snapped at a pair of teenage girls taking pictures of her at a restaurant. It’s catty fun, but what’s so striking about Steen’s work here—and about Zandvliet’s film in general—is the way it quickly moves beyond Thea’s grande-dame posturing to consider the frayed emotional wiring that leads her to various acts of self-sabotage.
A quasi-recovering alcoholic, Thea is desperate to reconnect with her two young sons, William and Mathias (Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks and Noel Koch-Søfeldt), with whom she’s had a fairly tumultuous relationship. (A history of alcohol-induced neglect and physical abuse is mentioned briefly and queasily felt throughout their first, terse interactions.) She convinces the boys’ father, Christian (Michael Falch), and his wife (Sara-Marie Maltha) that she has reformed her ways, and they tentatively allow her back into the children’s lives. Thea remains on good behavior, dumping out her copious bottles of booze and redecorating the boys’ old bedroom in her apartment. But such surface reforms cannot cure her fundamental flaw: a desperate craving for affection combined with a narcissism that is charmingly quirky at best, toxic at worst.
These competing yet connected impulses lead her to create situations rife with negative potential, often in spite of good intentions. One of the sweetest yet most revealing scenes comes when Thea and the boys spend their first day alone together. She has bought them some new toys, and the three romp and whoop through her apartment as they test them out. And what playthings would Thea give to the children with whom her relationship remains shot through with tension and mistrust? Plastic warrior weaponry. That’s one way to release some pent-up anger!
Of course, it’s these very elements—vanity, insecurity, a flair for emotional battle—that make Thea such a good actress. Applause opens with Thea playing Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Zandvliet (who co-wrote the screenplay with Anders Frithiof August) returns to scenes of her boozing and brawling in Albee’s play throughout the film. It sounds clumsy on paper but plays surprisingly well on screen. Until a final scene that underlines the thematic linkages a little too forcefully, the film largely keeps the connections between Thea and Martha diffuse. We’re not watching an actress get lost in her role so much as getting a glimpse into the silent, perhaps subconscious, process through which reality and artifice feed off each other, the latter becoming enriched as the former grows shriveled and emaciated. Ultimately, Thea’s journey is not one of emotional healing so much as melancholy self-realization: that she’ll never live her life as well as she can distill it on stage. It is her triumph, and it is her tragedy.
Applause will play on February 20 and 21 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.