Applaus (2009)


With an exceptionally raw performance from Paprika Steen, Applaus is a devastatingly real representation of an alcoholic’s life on the rocks.


A Woman Under The Influence by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In 2008, Paprika Steen appeared in a production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf at Copenhagen’s Gasværket theatre, a captivating performance which director Martin Zandvliet masterfully weaves into Applaus, the compelling story of Thea, an alcoholic, acclaimed actress and estranged-wife-and-mother, who bullies and manipulates everyone around her into obedience. A mirror image of Martha, she is also a domineering drunk. But as she attempts to give up the drink and get her life back on track, she yearns to be a fleshed out mother to her real sons.

With a battery of well calculated grandes gestes and devastating coups de théâtre at her fingertips, Thea is one of cinema’s great onscreen actresses. Unlike the washed-up grandes dames of Mankiewicz’s All About Eve or Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard however, age is not against her. Thea is an actress in her prime, at the height of her career, giving dazzling performances in front of Copenhagen’s glitterati. She has though spent a lifetime sacrificing relationships, health and humanity to her art; she treats her dressing room assistant with a disdain verging on the sadistic. Vicious and contemptuous, she screams at a toy store assistant unable to help her find the perfect present for her sons. Or when a young admirer approaches her in a nearby bar, she spurns him with shameless vitriol. Is it the vodka talking? Or something more bitter Unstable and capricious, she can only find peace in the limelight, in rapturous applause. More than being loved, she wants to be adored.

Having broken off contact with her children following bouts of alcoholism and violence, Thea decides it’s time to infiltrate the family she abandoned and win back her sons’ approval. Scheming and manipulating them into uneasy submission, she auditions for the role of ‘perfect mother’, rehearsing performances for her ex-husband, the family lawyer and the new wife, perfecting the right tone, the emphatic gesture, the killer look. At times painfully overbearing, at others charmingly free-spirited and non-conformist, she’s simultaneously Boho singleton with dapper flat, cool sword-fighting mum, and volatile ex-wife, better keep your distance. Her fluid identity allows her to switch characters seamlessly. Dressed only in an elegant black, she is a blank canvas, a rudderless ship, an actress with no director.

Only in the relationships with her sons does the real Thea come back to life – unmasked and vulnerable. And it is in these scenes that Applaus comes to life with a tenderness and warmth absent from her otherwise frosty performances. But Thea is impatient, and despite the thaw in family relations, she wants it all. Now. Viciously unpredictable as ever, she launches a custody claim before apparently kidnapping her sons out of school to take them on a trip to a nearby lake. Only later do we realise this is Thea saying goodbye to her sons before checking into rehab. Renouncing her claim for custody, she performs her one true act of selflessness, an act for which she gets no applause.

Produced by Steen’s husband, Mikael Rieks, starring their own son Otto as eldest son William, and directed by family friend Martin Zandvliet, Applaus is most definitely a family affair. With such an intimate and personal shoot, Paprika Steen delivers an exceptionally raw performance, a devastatingly real representation of an alcoholic’s life on the rocks. A potent draught that both warms and burns.

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