By Kim Voynar

Applause Directed by Martin Pieter Zandvliet

Danish powerhouse actress Paprika Steen (who had a directorial entry, the excellent With Your Permission, in the Toronto International Film Festival in 2007) turns in another excellent performance in Applause, the directorial debut of Martin Pieter Zandvliet.

The film revolves around Thea, an alcoholic actress who, some time before the film starts, divorced her nice-guy husband Christian (Michael Falks) and voluntarily gave up custody of her two sons (William, the older son, is played by Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks, Steen’s son with producer Mikael Rieks).

It’s implied that when Thea was drinking heavily, she was a neglectful and abusive mother, abandoning and even hurting her two young sons, who have since moved on to a more stable life with their dad and his new partner, Maiken (Sara-Marie Malken), who’s stepped into a mothering role with Thea’s sons. Now out of rehab, Thea desperately seeks to reconnect with her lost sons … but is she motivated by maternal instinct and genuine love, or by her own loneliness, desperation and need for validation?

The script (as is true often with the Danish films) is broadly sketched, leaving a great deal of room for the actors to move freely and interpret the characters and their interactions with each other; while Applause is clearly a star cheicle for Steen and rests heavily on the talented actress’s able shoulders, supporting performances are solid as well. Steen is a virtuoso of mood and vulnerability, and one of the things I like best about her as an actress is her ability to bring sympathy — and empathy — to characters who are not inherently sympathetic.

Thea is not an easy-to-like portrait of a woman and mother; she is selfish and relentlessly narcissistic; she has a history of making bad choices and is constantly teetering on the brink of making more; she’s edgy and unstable and prone to both violent outbursts and moments of pathetic neediness.

Thea is, in fact, a lot like the character Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a role that Thea is performing on stage to critical acclaim in back-and-forth moments in the film, while she attempts to regain control over her life overall and custody of her abandoned sons. Steen channels much of Thea’s inner anguish and the issues she’s wrestling over with her relationship with Christian and her sons through the onstage battle between Martha and George.

One of the most interesting and complex aspects of Applause, from a dramatic standpoint, is the rather smart allusion between Thea’s real personal life and Albee’s play, which constantly teeters between truth and lies, reality and illusion. Like the play in which she’s starring, Thea herself seems unable to distinguish truth from fiction, motive from motivation, the reality of children who need their mother versus the grim truth that Thea needs her sons (or has convinced herself she needs them) more than they need her.

Steen brings all of the rich complexity of Thea to life with a raw, edgy, unblemished performance, while somehow lending Thea just enough sadness and vulnerability for the audience to feel for her, perhaps even root for her, even as they have to question whether Thea is really stable enough to be a mother to these equally vulnerable children. Even in those moments when her genuine love for her sons seems clear, even when she’s being, for the moment, as good a mother as she can be to them, Thea’s instability and sense of inner turmoil create a constant sense of tension that at any moment, things might go horribly awry in spite of what appear to be her best intentions.

Steen jumps seamlessly back-and-forth between Thea the woman and Thea the acclaimed actress performing a role that is, for her, as much truth as it is fiction. Like Martha, the person Thea fools — and hurts — most consistently with illusions she creates in her personal life is herself, however much she might sling barbs at Christian.

Steen plays every note of this marvelously complex character with the skill Danish film lovers have come to expect of her; both script and direction give Steen the free rein to grow a character like Thea into something remarkable and deeply moving.

The film’s production value is, as is typical of the Danish films, excellent, with a muted, washed color pallete evoking Thea’s sense of bleakness. Much use is made of hand-held cams and natural lighting, giving the film a bit of a Dogme feel, but this film is Steen’s in which to shine, and she doesn’t disappoint for a moment.

-by Kim Voynar

Comments are closed.

Quote Unquotesee all »

“We don’t have any idea what the universe is. Wise people have always told us that this is proof you shouldn’t think, because thinking leads you nowhere. You just build over this huge construction of misunderstanding, which is culture. The history of culture is the history of the misunderstandings of great thinkers. So we always have to go back to zero and begin differently. And maybe in that way you have a chance not to understand but at least not to have further misunderstandings. Because this is the other side of this question—Am I really so brave to cancel all human culture? To stop admiring the beauty in human production? It’s very difficult to say no.”
~ László Krasznahorkai

“I have a license to carry in New York. Can you believe that? Nobody knows that, [Applause] somebody attacks, somebody attacks me, oh, they’re gonna be shot. Can you imagine? Somebody says, oh, it is Trump, he’s easy pickings what do you say? Right? Oh, boy. What was the famous movie? No. Remember, no remember where he went around and he sort of after his wife was hurt so badly and kill. What?  I — Honestly, Yeah, right, it’s true, but you have many of them. Famous movie. Somebody. You have many of them. Charles Bronson right the late great Charles Bronson name of the movie come on.  , remember that? Ah, we’re gonna cut you up, sir, we’re gonna cut you up, uh-huh.


One of the great movies. Charles Bronson, great, Charles Bronson. Great movies. Today you can’t make that movie because it’s not politically correct, right? It’s not politically correct. But could you imagine with Trump? Somebody says, oh, all these big monsters aren’t around he’s easy pickings and then shoot.”
~ Donald Trump