The veteran Danish actress Paprika Steen has survived the unflattering lighting of many a Dogme production, but in Martin Zandvliet’s Applause, she finally meets her match. As an alcoholic actress estranged from her ex-husband and their two children, Steen plays a character in such bad shape that she actually looks better playing half the notoriously wasted couple in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Onstage, even in intense close-ups that show the pancake makeup smeared across her face, her emotions are held at least slightly in check, channeled to a greater purpose. But when she’s alone in the world, scrubbed of her second skin, she seems too fragile to contain herself. She’s a pressurized container that might blow any of a dozen seams without warning.
Applause doesn’t chart Steen’s downward spiral so much as her abortive attempts to pull out of it. Her life has already fallen apart; it’s a question of whether she can piece it back together, or wants to. There’s the lure of her children, with whom she’s been granted a few provisional hours a week after unspecified past transgressions, but it isn’t clear what she’d do with them given more time. In one agonizing sequence, she unexpectedly picks the kids up from school and heads for the country, leaving us to wonder whether she’s planning an impromptu picnic or a double murder.
Not surprisingly, the movie lives and dies on Steen’s performance; not only is she in almost every frame, but at times, the camera is in so close that nothing is visible but her pitted, ravaged face. The role is a blank check Steen wastes no time cashing, but even at her most flamboyant, there’s a core of quiet sadness to the character. There’s a sense that her genius and her demons drink from the same well.
But Zandvliet’s direction lacks Steen’s gradations. The handheld, rubbed-raw style wears thin after a while, growing monotonous and wearying. It’s no accident that Opening Night, to which Applause owes a substantial debt, was one of John Cassavetes’ most beautiful films, its visual textures serving as a much-needed counterpoint to its protagonist’s dissolution. Applause just keeps pounding at its single drum until the skin cracks.