'Applause': A Strange Beauty, Buried Inside A Beast

Correction Feb. 2, 2011

An earlier version of this review mistakenly credited The Celebration to director Lars von Trier. The film was by Thomas Vinterberg.

Paprika Steen

hide captionA Mirror, Two Faces: Paprika Steen's performance as Thea, an actress trying to sober up and regain custody of her children, carries Martin Zandvliet's Applause beyond a genre plot and standard-issue dialogue.

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Applause

  • Director: Martin Zandvliet
  • Genre: Foreign Drama
  • Running Time: 86 minutes

Rated R for language

With: Paprika Steen, Michael Falch, Shanti Roney

In Danish with English subtitles

You'd think that by now world cinema would have slaked its endless thirst for Drunken Moms Behaving Badly. But no, sodden women keep barreling down the transom, trailing domestic wreckage like Oscar bait, all the way from The Little Foxes (1941) through The Graduate (1967) and When A Man Loves A Woman (1994) to 2009's British indie Fish Tank. And that's not counting the childless, aging lushes recently driven off a chewed-scenery cliff by Tilda Swinton in the French-made Julia and by Lesley Manville in the Mike Leigh movie Another Year, now playing to unwarranted acclaim.

Why, is what I want to know? Statistically women may be drinking to excess more than they used to, but they're nowhere near the guys yet. So what makes an alcoholic woman losing her marbles onscreen so much more compelling than a drunken male doing the same? Face it, ladies: Nic Cage notwithstanding, the loss-of-looks-and-dignity thing and the not-in-front-of-the children thing still pack a bigger dramatic punch when it's a woman falling off the wagon.

So welcome to 2011's first on-topic offering — this one an import from Denmark, where it was first released in 2009 — and let me say off the bat that without the transcendent performance of its star, the enchantingly named Paprika Steen, Martin Pieter Zandvliet's drama about an allegedly recovering alcoholic trying to regain custody of her kids would add very little to the conversation.

Inspired a little bit by John Cassavetes — the director even considered casting Gena Rowlands, who played the ultimate alky mom in A Woman Under the Influence — and a whole lot by the aptly named Dogme experimental method, Applause comes with the obligatory murky lighting. There's the inevitable wobbly hand-held camera, too, stalking its stage-actress subject as she looses her Angry Inner Child on her ex-husband (Michael Falch), herself, and anyone else who happens to stand in her line of fire.

Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks, Paprika Steen, Noel Koch-Sofeldt i i

hide captionOtto Leonardo Steen Rieks (left) — Steen's real-life child — and Noel Koch-Sofeldt (right) play Thea's young sons.

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Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks, Paprika Steen, Noel Koch-Sofeldt

Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks (left) — Steen's real-life child — and Noel Koch-Sofeldt (right) play Thea's young sons.

World Wide Motion Pictures

However steeped in self-conscious style, though, Applause doesn't do much more than deliver the obvious AA insights, hammering them home with intercut footage of Steen's real-life theatrical turn in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In a clunky convenience, her ex's Wife No. 2 turns out to be a serene and sensible psychologist, a woman as wise to Thea's grand, Martha-worthy manipulations as Thea herself is blind to them.

Inappropriate behavior alert! Rushing from one snap decision to the next, alienating allies and burning bridges as she goes, Thea is pretty much a textbook addict, stymied by neediness, self-pity and a precise gift for projecting her fears onto others who try to help her. Zandvliet puts this grab bag of warring impulses through the prescribed histrionics: She curses, hits, throws herself around, abuses then beds a stranger she meets in a bar, hugs her bewildered sons too hard for too long, and when all else fails reaches for the bottle.

Yet though it may not immediately look like it, Steen is giving a superbly controlled performance; she's added unexpected layers to the flat banality of her dialogue on the page. With her pocked skin, sea-green kohl-ringed eyes and a mane of wavy blond hair she keeps tossing as if to shake out her demons, Thea looks like a fatally wounded lioness. But Steen — best known to American audiences for her roles in Dogme-style movies like Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration and Suzanne Bier's Open Hearts — complicates Thea's hysteria by holding herself back in moments of silence. She lets Thea's watchful face break into spontaneous affection for her two bewildered children (one of whom is played by Steen's son with Applause producer Mikael Christian Rieks); she suggests that this holy terror is herself a frightened child who can't bear to be alone with her thoughts.

Even when she comes to understand herself enough to make a decision not ordinarily available to flailing anti-heroines in this overworked subgenre's facile pedagogy, Steen's Thea never surrenders her defiant moxie. You may or may not buy this flawed mother's claim that without her, her sons would grow up boring. But there's no arguing with the unorthodox way in which she finally shows both her love for them and her wonderfully twisted respect for herself.

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