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by Jay Seaver

"Paprika Steen, at least, deserves plenty."
4 stars

"Applause" is a fairly good movie wrapped around a superlative performance. Its American release is a calling card for star Paprika Steen, a familiar face to fans of Danish film who is not nearly so well known in the States. By the time the film finishes, audiences will certainly be familiar with every inch of that face, and few will have many doubts about the talent behind it.

The film opens on Thea Barfoed (Steen) performing on stage, playing Martha in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". It is, perhaps, not the greatest role for a recovering alcoholic, though it may be the one that comes most naturally. She's good in the role, maybe brilliant, although temperamental backstage, berating her young dresser (Malou Leth Reymann). Away from the theater, she's more than a bit of a mess - just out of rehab, with little to do but sit around the apartment not drinking all day. She would like more time with her children (Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks and Noel Koch-Søfeldt), but there are very good reasons why her ex-husband Christian (Michael Falch) and his wife Maiken (Sara-Marie Maltha) have full custody.

Director Martin Zandvliet knows that this movie is resting on Paprika Steen's performance, and he spends the bulk of the movie squarely focusing on it. It's not just that Steen is in every scene (she is), but that most of those scenes are framed to put her in the direct center of the widescreen frame, often in close-up. The action is not going to happen in the corners, and it's not even so much about how the rest of the world reacts to her - the audience is supposed to pay attention to Steen's Thea; she's the whole reason that the movie exists.

Interestingly, the main exception to that is when Thea is on-stage and overtly in character; though we only rarely see anyone else in the cast, we're not given the same close look at Thea-as-Martha as with Thea herself. We see a lot more of the back of her head or her walking across the stage, sometimes fast enough for the various bits of digital equipment between capture and projection to have some compression problems. This may be deliberate; the footage actually comes from Paprika Steen acting in a production of "Virginia Woolf", and having things be too clear might lead the audience to see some "Thea" in the performance that's not actually there. Or it may just have been the best footage Zandvliet and company could get (it wasn't their production). It's edited in well, serving as a nice break between sequences and showing us that Thea is at least a gifted actress, no matter what else we may think of her.

Given that Thea being a great actress is such a central part of the story, it's a very good thing that the film has a real-world actress as capable as Steen in the role. It doesn't hurt that she plays the part without vanity - the close-ups show us just how ragged she is made up to look as Thea - but mostly because the part calls for a delicately balanced layer of artifice - we have to be able to see that performing is not limited to the stage for Thea, but something she does in her personal life, even when there's nobody else around. She has to be good, but not so perfect that the audience and people in her life can't see what she's doing and be ready to call her on it. Steen walks that tightrope without a hitch. She also lets us see glimpses of the interesting, contradictory personality underneath her facades: Though her relationships with her kids is far from perfect (some of her reasons for wanting to spend more time with them are selfish, and it shouldn't escape notice that she relates best to them when playing make-believe), there is genuine love there; but she is a naturally manipulative, self-centered person.

Indeed, many of her best scenes are ones that actively alienate the audience. There's one in a pub where Thea and Shanti Roney's Tom start off as just respectively snippy and pushy, but become more engrossing as their conversation reveals just how horrible each character really is. If Roney were just in that one scene, it would likely be the film's most memorable supporting performance, because it's the only one where someone else engages Thea in a real back-and-forth; the rest of the cast, while doing what is asked with them well, are mainly there to react to Thea.

That's somewhat true of the film as a whole; it's a great part for Paprika Steen, and few are likely to forget her performance afterward, but nearly all else is background. Quite good background to an excellent bit of acting - and even if it weren't, it's not like you would say the acting makes up for what comes between it, as there is no between it.

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originally posted: 12/24/10 13:30:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 2009 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 14th Annual European Union Film Festival For more in the 14th Annual European Union Film Festival series, click here.

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  03-Dec-2010 (R)
  DVD: 26-Nov-2013



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