Applause -- Film Review

The simple but affecting film is worth a look for its gutsy and commanding central performance.

Taking deep bows to John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, the Danish film "Applause" is a showcase for the formidable talents of actress Paprika Steen. A leading figure in Scandinavian film and theater, she’s delivered memorable turns in a number of Dogme films, including "The Celebration," displaying a knack for comedy as well as drama. In "Applause," the story of a successful actress fumbling to get her life back on track after hitting bottom as an alcoholic, Steen owns the screen.

The simple but affecting film begins a weeklong award-qualifying run Friday before opening in stateside art houses Jan. 21, and is worth a look for its gutsy and commanding central performance.

Both self-absorbed and self-aware, Steen’s Thea is a force of nature who admits to hating “ordinary people” — certainly she’s bored by them, like those at AA meetings whose confessions put her to sleep. Eighteen months after her divorce from Christian (Danish rocker Michael Falch), she’s trying to re-establish a relationship with her young sons (Noel Koch-Sofeldt and Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks, son of the actress and producer Mikael Christian Rieks), whose custody she relinquished before entering rehab.

First-time director Martin Pieter Zandvliet intercuts scenes of Thea’s shaky recovery with excerpts from her stage performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf — using footage from Steen’s acclaimed Copenhagen run in the Edward Albee play. The other stage actors’ voices occasionally are heard, along with coughs from the audience, but the focus in these scenes is entirely on Thea/Steen. Her ferocity as the hard-drinking Martha bleeds backstage into Thea’s verbal abuse of a young wardrobe assistant (Malou Reymann).

Steen submits to the blunt scrutiny of Jesper Toffner’s gritty camerawork, making no apologies for Thea’s arrogance or her aggressive neediness. Overcompensating with expensive gifts, she embarks on clumsy attempts at friendship with Christian’s new wife (Sara-Marie Maltha), a psychologist as serene and centered as Thea is fraught. She flirts with danger in visits to her old watering hole, engaging in a passive-aggressive pas de deux with a smug young businessman (Shanti Roney).

Zandvliet and his fearless star explore the blurred emotional line between work and private life, paying homage to A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night and entering territory as raw and fevered as that of Cassavetes’ dramas. Applause offers no softening euphemisms — but plenty of sharp humor — in its depiction of a gifted artist struggling to reform herself as she rages against the vulnerabilities of middle age.

Opened: Dec. 3 (World Wide Motion Pictures)
Production companies: A World Wide Motion Pictures Corp. presentation of a Koncern film
Cast: Paprika Steen, Michael Falch, Sara-Marie Maltha, Shanti Roney, Malou Reymann, Uffe Rorbaek, Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks, Noel Koch-Sofeldt
Director: Martin Pieter Zandvliet
Screenwriters: Anders Frithiof August, Martin Pieter Zandvliet
Producer/executive producer: Mikael Christian Rieks
Director of photography: Jesper Toffner
Production designer: Rasmus Cold
Music: Sune Martin
Costume designer: Marianne Wassberg
Editor: Per Sandholt
MPAA rating: R, 86 minutes