A treat, if not quite a splendid one, for fans of Paprika Steen, the Danish Applause tells the story of successful actress and recovering alcoholic Thea as she tries to return to the lives of her two young sons, whilst playing Martha onstage in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Steen is magnificent, a wreck, hanging on with hairspray, mascara and cigarettes. She’s the absolute centre of the film’s attention – not many actors could so resiliently shoulder as many unflattering close-ups as she – but she’s better than her material.
Direction is largely in a detached observational mode, using underplayed action to imply emotional heft, but rarely trusting to the effectiveness of a long take. Steen and the juddery camera recall the heady days of Dogma, which taught if nothing else the superfluity of most movie music; pleasant enough as its sparse use is here, it’s needed solely to stretch out dead-space montages. There’s little that feels risky: Steen’s bravery is a given but it’s barely stretched. It’s the sort of film about which one feels let down because the potential – and ambition – is great but the result is so sketchy. Jesper Tøffner’s camerawork does have its moments, with some striking, almost monochrome compositions (and a particularly effective focus pull); the script, however, is as reticent as the direction, its emotional meat confined largely to frequent recursions to the Albee play (Steen’s acclaimed 2008 performance in Copenhagen). As the film progresses, however, these excerpts slide from window of suggestion into Thea’s past life, to merely facile scene transitions, with no exploration of the parallels and forces between the character and the actress. Playing real-life in a quieter mode simply makes it appear less interesting.
The title implies rather more focus on the specific psychological priorities of the performing artist than is even considered, a few throwaway comments aside, and the strangeness of Thea’s encounter with a barfly and later neurotic love-making (sort of) remains awkward rather than awkwardly revealing. The question of whether or not Thea has changed to the extent of being able competently to look after her children is entirely neutered – it is less important whether she has or not, than whether others think she has or not; the flaw, however, is that so intently focused as it is on Thea, the film gives itself no room to breathe life into anyone else (the paper-thin role of her ex-husband benefits greatly from the characterful face of Michael Falch) and despite Steen’s best efforts, Thea remains basically a stock character. Makes one long to see all of her Martha.
Applause is out now. Watch the trailer…