What a dump: Applause ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2012)

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I have a new favorite actress. Her name is Paprika Steen, and she delivers a searing performance in the Danish import Applause, directed and co-written (with Anders Frithiof August) by Martin Zandvliet. Technically, Steen is giving two searing performances; one as an embittered, middle-aged alcoholic stage actress named Thea Barfoed, and another as the embittered, middle-aged alcoholic “Martha”, as in “George and Martha”, the venomous, bickering couple who fuel Edward Albee’s classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

As you might guess, the clever theatrical allusions abound throughout, with interwoven vignettes of Thea’s nightly performances as “Martha” serving a Greek Chorus for her concurrent real-life travails. While she continues to wow adoring fans with her stagecraft, the acid-tongued Thea makes a less-than-glowing impression on the people she encounters in her off-stage life (mostly due to the fact that she’s usually half in the bag by lunchtime). She has particular difficulty dealing with the fact that her ex-husband Christian (Michael Falch) has remarried, to a younger woman named Maiken (Sara-Marie Maltha). Adding insult to injury (at least from Thea’s perspective), Maiken is a psychologist, which only further fuels Thea’s ever-present paranoia and insecurities.

However, there does seem to be a tiny glimmer of light on the horizon, as Thea is making a concerted effort to step away from the bottle for good (which is sort of working out, in fits and starts). Finding herself in an unusually lucid state of mind one day, she decides to begin lobbying in earnest for acquiring more quality time with her two young sons, who live with their father and stepmother (Thea ceded custody when she divorced Christian). Although Thea is making nice with Maiken, and assuring her ex that she has “changed” since…(a mental breakdown, or possibly a prolonged stay at a rehab clinic?), Christian  remains wary. After all…she is an actress.

And so this simple, yet emotionally dense slice of life unfolds. As anyone who has seen more than one study about an alcoholic knows, it’s right about the time things start looking up for the protagonist that you find yourself cringing and waiting for the other shoe to drop (“How is she going to fuck this up? Pass the popcorn.”).

While I’ve seen this story before, it’s been some time since I’ve seen it played with the fierce commitment Steen brings to  it. Thea’s shame spiral binges evoke Patty Duke’s Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls at times, but I felt Steen’s overall performance (and the film’s writing and directing style) most strongly recalled John Cassavetes’ Opening Night. In that 1977 film, Gena Rowlands plays, well, an insecure, middle-aged alcoholic stage actress, who is starring in a play that mirrors her real life angst. And just like the great Rowlands, Steen is a force of nature; a joy to watch. She is fearless, compassionate and 100% convincing. After all…she is an actress.

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