Martin Zandvliet’s debut film Applause is a strange experience, both frustrating and exhilarating. On one hand, it is not strange at all. With muted melancholy, the story unfolds in a straightforward way and, as such, is not a difficult sit. On the other hand, the tediousness of the script is caught completely off guard by the intensity of Paprika Steen’s performance. The frustration one might have with the mediocre script vanishes as one gives in to the masterful art of an actress who carefully orchestrates her presence – a presence blessedly free from taking the blandness of the story into consideration.
Steen plays an actress, Thea, who celebrates great success on stage as Martha in Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virgnia Woolf?” Privately, she has recently checked out of a rehab clinic after a life-threatening abuse of alcohol that led to divorce and alienation from her husband (Michael Falch) and two sons. As she tries to get on her feet again, she struggles to get back into the lives of her sons, and to find ways to manage herself around her ex-husband’s new wife and the colleagues at the theatre.
There is nothing in the story indicating that we might be witnessing one of the great European actresses of our time giving a masterclass performance. The wonder is that Steen’s fascinating portrayal of Thea completely elevates the film and, as such, Applause is one of the rare films that truly are made watchable by the performers. And the director Zandvliet seems well aware of this. He puts Steen center stage: the camera never loses her from its sight, always investigating her stubborn insecurity and wounded dignity, her tantrums of diva proportions and her sad moments of gentle grief over the consequences she must pay for the loss of self control. Steen knows her character disturbingly well and is quite frightfully good.
One might wonder why this review seems to consist of nothing but a fanboy’s gushing over something as prosaic as an actress’s performance, but so it is. The title of the film, Applause, is in itself a spotlight, carefully investigating the stage, highlighting the performers in front more than anything. Needless to say, the title is a fitting description for this film.