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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Jan. 21, 2011 | 10:38 AM

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You don’t have to be familiar with Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to enjoy the Danish film Applause, but those that are will have an even richer experience.  Albee’s play chronicles one particularly rancorous night of fighting between a professor and his alcoholic wife.  In Applause, snippets of the film’s main character Thea (Paprika Steen) onstage in Woolf are intercut with the film’s main storyline.  A recovering alcoholic, Thea nonetheless knocks back a stiff drink before she goes on every night to get into character. Offstage, though, it’s a different story.  Fighting to stay sober and to reconnect with her two young sons, she makes every effort to save the drama for the stage.  Featuring a wide ranging performance by Steen, the film draws us in by offering a refreshingly complex portrait of a family in crisis.

Simply put, this film belongs to Paprika Steen.  Thea is the type of role that any actress would covet, but only a few would be equal to its demands.  Steen is onscreen for virtually the entire length of the film’s 85 minute running time, and she never hits a false note. Not only is she asked to perform scenes from one of the great American plays of the 20th century, but she’s also required to convey vulnerability, rage, and the paradox of being successful in career and a failure at home.  Steen succeeds by providing a study in contrasts.  While more than equal to the over the top demands of Albee’s character Martha, offstage she knows that only by being calm and rational will she succeed in regaining custody of her boys.

Director Martin Zandvliet and his co-writer Anders Fritihiof August give us additional glimpses into Thea’s character by including a series of scenes in which she interacts with her young hairdresser before she goes onstage.  The two seem to have an easy rapport, and the assistant is clearly impressed with Thea’s performances each night, but their dynamic is more complex.  Thea’s vanity is threatened by the hairdresser’s youth, and makes requests to have her fired to she show’s producers before she goes onstage every night.  Yet the next night, the assistant’s always back at her post. She serves a valuable purpose as a sounding board, especially in the film’s enigmatic final scene, in which she seems to be the only one that Thea has left to talk to.

The film’s main story line, in which Thea tries to convince her ex-husband that she’s off the booze and deserves to spend more time with their two sons, is handled with grace.  One of the strengths of Applause lies in its refusal to offer up pat solutions to complex problems.  Thea goes to the county to try to instigate custody hearings, but this film isn’t interested in showing us courtroom histrionics, and instead stays firmly focused on revealing character in surprising ways.  Based on our knowledge of Thea’s past as an alcoholic, we keep expecting that she will have a relapse in the presence of her sons, but it turns out that she has a very winning way with them.  Another scene which starts out tenderly ends up being an all too vivid reminder of her past. 

Zandvliet’s decision to shoot the film hand held at very close range is a little overbearing at times, but it mostly works for this film’s intimate subject matter.  Applause is a wrenching portrait of a actor who can’t seem to figure out her role once she steps off the stage.

Applause opens Friday, January 21st at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.  In Danish with English Subtitles.

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