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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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon