Denmark (85 mi) 2009 ‘Scope d: Martin Zandvliet
The spirit of Applause echoes films from the late 60s and 70s. Indeed I am in search of the emotional drama you found in films back then. Applause may also seem like it’s from a different time — a cinematic tradition centered on the human soul and on acting.
For me Applause is about betrayal. About how we as human beings betray the ones closest to us, when we ourselves have been betrayed. About having difficulties trusting other people and judging what is right and wrong. About the complexity of longing for something better. About reacting as extremely egocentric or extremely helpful, about varying between despondency/discouragement and spite. All in the hope of being seen, heard, and loved.
— Martin P. Zandvliet
In a surreal coincidence, on the day of actress Elizabeth Taylor's death, the movie seen that night was this Danish film featuring a bravura performance from one of Denmark's leading actresses, Paprika Sheen, where the film follows her shattered and deteriorating marriage while at the same time offers glimpses of various segments from her actual 2008 Copenhagen Theatre onstage performance as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), a role that epitomizes what’s legendary about both Ms. Taylor, who was incredibly only 33 when she played the role, and Ms. Steen who is a more mature 45. The role is so bruisingly iconic in the dramatic repertoire that playing the part is considered a rite of passage in one’s career, as is Hamlet or King Lear for men. With tributes to John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands listed in the end credits, what stands out is the desperately driven, all-in attitude of Steen’s performance, which mirrors Rowlands’ vital need to be loved in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974), especially the scenes with her two children, the older of which, Otto Rieks as William, is her own son. When she bounds across the floor wearing her Viking helmet declaring she is Eric the Red, charging towards her sons who have appropriately been given giant swords and shields, she lovingly creates an imaginary world second to none. How could any kid resist, except - - they do, thinking perhaps their mother is a little bit crazy. She pounces on this thought, exclaiming of course she’s crazy. “Isn’t it cool to have a crazy mother?” They sheepishly are forced to agree with her before she leaps up declaring “I’m Eric the Red again!”
Steen is a product of the Dogme movement, the only actress to work in each of the initial three productions, THE CELEBRATION (1998), THE IDIOTS (1998), and MIFUNE (1999). Needless to say, Steen as Thea is a drama queen in the best sense of the word, which means there’s not a moment in her life when she’s not acting, as she lives for the intensity of every moment, which not everyone can stand, including her divorced husband Christian (Michael Falch), who has custody of both sons, and who has long ago tired of her theatrical outbursts. Thea gave away her rights to custody during an extended alcoholic binge when her behavior towards her children was worse than intolerable. Fortunately they are still young enough that they may barely have any scars or fresh recollections. Christian, on the other hand, is unforgiving, especially when Thea announces her interest in reestablishing custody rights. Visits are fine, when planned and mutually agreed to ahead of time, but nothing spontaneous or improvisational, which is the life blood of her craft, namely living. She spurts out insults about how he’s turned them into little Toys R Us Nazi children, how she barely recognizes her imprint in their personalities any more. From her perspective, they may as well be suffering from the effects of an impersonal and demoralizing foster care system. As Christian, one assumes, is a doctor, and his new wife a psychiatrist, Thea blurts out how the entire medical establishment has conspired against her. The dark humor used throughout the film continually covers up the aches of loneliness and personal torment, where what must hurt most of all is having no one to blame more than herself. That’s the real curse, which feels like a stab in the heart.
A continuing theme of the film is her long walk from the stage to her dressing room, always helped by her young dresser (Malou Reymann) that she’s always trying to fire for the crime of being young, yet she continually shows up in exactly the same place, as pretty and perky as ever, which really must disgust the star of the show, who sulks endlessly about her “dog skin” face, loathing the body that has seemingly turned on her with age as she gulps down another shot of bourbon before she stalks down the hall to take her rightful place onstage in the boozing and brawling of Edward Albee’s play. Thea has the sad habit of reappearing in bars, frequenting the old stomping grounds even as she refrains from taking a drink anymore, seen bored to tears at an AA meeting where she’s forced to actually have to listen to the sad plight of others. It’s in a bar that she meets Tom from Berlin, Shanti Roney, a guy with a sick smile plastered to his face that she orders him to wipe off when they first meet, which pretty much describes their sick affair together, connected by neverending wounds of anguish and pain. Nothing ever goes the way it’s planned, as Thea hurls herself headfirst into her new future with all the gusto and incoherence that defined her complicated past. “I hate ordinary people,” she bellows, but realizes in the same breath that she must learn to live among them, never actually trusting any of them, as if they were a strange breed of mutants, yet continuously it falls back upon her own shoulders and the burden she must bear. It has all come to this, as she’s seen staring at herself in the mirror, smacking her lips with a new sheen of lipstick. There is no one left to blame, all the bridges behind have been burned, leaving her alone once more standing on that precipice, about the take the first baby steps of a new beginning. With her, it’s always opening night.