Life’s a mess, on-stage and off
by Boyd van Hoeij
- A Danish star actress tries to get her private life back on the rails in Martin Pieter Zandvliet’s directorial debut that won Best Actress and the Europa Cinemas Label Award in Karlovy Vary
A perfectly styled, latter-day Dogma entry from Denmark, Martin Pieter Zandvliet’s Applause [+see also:
interview: Martin Pieter Zandvliet
film profile] is, appropriately enough, about someone who is perfect when in the limelight but whose personal life is long past its expiry date.
Again, as appropriate, the story of this actress is constructed around the performance of the woman who brings her to life, Danish thespian (and occasional director) Paprika Steen, who is in virtually every frame of Zandvliet’s film and delivers a virtuoso performance that is without an ounce of vanity. Frequently seen in extreme close-ups and with either flaky makeup or no makeup at all, the film does not turn her into a glamour goddess but deliberately shows us the imperfect person hiding underneath the well-known icon.
When preparing herself in her dressing room with her teenage assistant, she complains about having “dog skin” and how she would love to trade with her assistant for a day. But like her life, her skin bares the traces of what she has gone through until now.
Steen plays Thea, an actress in her forties who has been divorced for 18 months, is a recovering alcoholic and is currently treading the boards as Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Zandvliet shows fragments of Thea as Martha throughout the film (filmed during an actual run of the play that starred Steen), and there are many similarities between the two characters, but Zandvliet never makes a point of them, only wanting to show her at work to make one notion clear: Thea is a great actress.
Her personal life hasn’t been that great for a long time, and Thea finds it hard to even have a normal conversation with anyone, as her fears and phobias struggle with her desire to get what she has been missing for the past months, including her two children: William (Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks, Steen’s real-life son) and Matthias (Noel Koch-Sofeldt).
Contact with her ex-husband Christian (Michael Falch) is difficult, but he is willing to give it a try for the sake of the boys, and Thea even tries to become friends with his new lover, Majken (Sara-Marie Maltha), a calm and composed psychologist who seems to be her total opposite. Obviously, though, the way she goes about it as well as the likely reasoning behind it are all wrong.
Zandvliet, who also wrote the screenplay (with Steen in mind), finds the perfect balance between apathy and humanity, making Thea an unlikeable but nevertheless very human and recognisable character. The short moments of bliss she shares with her children show she is capable of affection and being a good mother at least some of the time, and as a viewer it becomes hard not to want her to have more of these moments.
Though the film does not entirely follow the rules of Dogma (it has an elegant score of piano and string arrangements, for one), its handheld images – grainy, bright and slightly overexposed – firmly place the film in that tradition. As does the simple presence of Steen, who came to the fore as a film actress in some of the earliest Dogma titles, including Susanne Bier’s Open Hearts [+see also: