Saturday, April 14, 2012

Applause (Applaus)

Anatomy Of A Life Lived And Acted, Amidst Alcohol

Paprika Steen as Thea/Martha in Martin Pieter Zandvliet's drama "Applause". 
World Wide Motion Pictures Corporation


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, April 14
, 2012

In the 2009 Danish
drama "Applause" (Applaus) Paprika Steen gives one of the great screen performances of recent years as Thea, a divorcee and recovering alcoholic seeking more quality time with and custody of her two sons from her ex-husband Christian (Michael Falch).  Thea is also a stage actress, which may be the one thing keeping her from completely disintegrating.  She is hurting inside.  Thea is fully aware that in order to stay afloat and reconnect with her children she must clean up her volatile act.  It won't be easy.  "Applause" opened yesterday in several U.S. cities (Berkeley, San Francisco, Seattle).

"Applause", Martin Pieter Zandvliet's feature-directing debut, is a classic chronicle of life and art colliding and blurring until both are indistinguishable.  The film is dipped in a grainy, drab home video-like atmosphere, alternately under-lit and overexposed, with sometimes monochromatic backdrops.  "Applause" splits its time between Thea's off-stage exploits, marked by solo appearances in bars and blunt remarks to hollow, no-hoping men who convene there, and her life on stage playing Martha, the agonized, volcanic boozy character in Edward Albee's 1960s play "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?"  (The footage is actually from Ms. Steen's stage work in the play from 2008.)  Mr. Albee's play forms the allegorical backbone of Mr. Zandvliet's film, in which Thea, a charismatic yet intemperate sort, seeks any method of manipulation to get her two angelic sons back. 

Ms. Steen brings earthiness, pain and raw, unvarnished humanity to Thea, a woman crying out to be whole again as she attempts a reconciliation with her sons.  Thea's been far from a mother to them.  Though estranged from Thea the sons don't necessarily see the mannered, maiden-like Maiken (Sara-Marie Maltha), a psychotherapist and Christian's current wife, as their stepmother.  Christian, a cautious, amiable fellow, has boundless anger towards Thea, which is barely concealed until things are taken too far. 

Some of the harsh exchanges between Thea and Christian are vicious and bone-chilling, something you might expect from Mamet or Bergman.  That said, those two legends hardly corner the market on such dialogue, and Mr. Zandvliet and Anders Frithiof August's screenplay is full of acerbic rejoinders, bluster and acutely truthful episodes, none of which feel heavy-handed.  "Applause" details the turbulence of life and the complex currents of change, accident and happenstance that hurl human beings into places they may not have ever expected to find themselves but are compelled to escape. 

At all points Thea knows exactly who she is as a person.  Whether alcohol sugar coats that reality or not, Thea has total awareness and is a formidable being, admirable as she bravely fights through her own maelstrom.  What Ms. Steen does so well is effortlessly celebrate the vitality and urgency of a voluble figure on a journey of adversity, without exalting or placing her in the soothing spotlight of audience pity, be that audience the stage audience we hear or the one watching Mr. Zandvliet's film.

In some of the film's best scenes, a reflective Thea speaks to her young makeup and wardrobe assistant, who gamely coexists with the troubled star.  The assistant could easily be Thea's daughter, and there's a soothing clarity in their exchanges.  Ms. Steen strips herself of vanity to create an honest, startling and resonant character.  Thea is nothing if not proud and righteous.  She won't be everyone's cup of tea but that matters not: Thea is almost always true to herself and her goals.  Both she and the film find truth in that specific underlying reality.

As the relentless Thea, Ms. Steen's performance is grittier than (yet recalls somewhat the energy and spirit of) Gena Rowlands' work in John Cassavetes' "Opening Night", a film and director that Mr. Zandvliet was likely influenced by.  "Applause", an authentic, affecting emotional story of regaining equilibrium and self-control, is also about the theater of life and the realization that one does not really exist without the other.  "All the world's a stage," a Shakespeare character once declared, "and all the men and women on it merely players."  Mr. Zandvliet's clever "Applause" shouts "amen" to Jacques.

With: Shanti Roney, Malou Reymann, Uffe Rørbaek, Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks, Noel Koch-Søfeldt.

"Applause" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language.  The film is in the Danish language with English subtitles.  The film's running time is one hour and 24 minutes. 

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