A fearless, tour-de-force performance by star Paprika Steen is the main attraction of the Danish drama “Applause,” about an abrasive, alcoholic actress trying to regain control of her life and custody of her young sons. Debuting feature helmer Martin Pieter Zandvliet’s in-your-face, Dogma-style cocktail extracts the essence of Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” and “Opening Night,” adds Martha’s monologues from a staged production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and spikes the whole concoction with scathing wit. Unabashedly fest material, the pic will have a limited release in Denmark via Nordisk in September.
Written especially for Steen, the part of arrogant, aging diva Thea is an entirely credible creation. By turns charismatic, manipulative, self-centered, egotistical, desperate and self-loathing, she’s her own worst enemy. Offstage, Thea doesn’t hesitate to use her fluency with words to humiliate the “ordinary people” she claims to hate; her tendency to lash out in wounding ways fails to win her much sympathy as a character. Luckily, the screenplay supplies her with just enough self-awareness and wicked humor to remain compelling.
At the pic’s midpoint, a barfly (Shanti Roney) whom Thea verbally castrates neatly sums her up when he whines, “You think you can be an asshole, say ‘sorry’ and it’s OK.”
Claiming to have given up drinking, Thea entreats ex-husband Christian (rock musician Michael Falch) to let her spend time with their sons, William (Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks) and Matthias (Noel Koch-Sofeldt). But in the 18 months since their divorce, Christian has remarried a woman who’s very much Thea’s opposite: calm, centered psychologist Maiken (Sara-Marie Maltha).
Unfolding in short, intense episodes centered on Thea, the narrative continually is intercut with scenes from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (shot when Steen toplined an acclaimed Copenhagen production). While Steen’s dialogue as Martha seems to comment on Thea’s struggles, it’s a device that soon wears out its welcome.
Steen’s bravura performance overpowers all the others as she embodies the script’s most multifaceted character. Much of Jesper Toffner’s fluid widescreen lensing captures her in unflattering extreme closeup, a harsh scrutiny to which she bravely submits.
Supported by New Danish Screen, a fund that helps out new directors and experimental projects, “Applause” was produced by Steen’s real-life partner Mikael Christian Rieks, with their son Otto playing Thea’s eldest.