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

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin