Many filmmakers have explored the inner world of performers, but few do it as masterfully as Danish director Martin Zandvliet (Angels of Brooklyn). Teamed with actor extraordinaire, Paprika Steen (Okay), their feature Applause (Applaus, 2009) is nothing short of remarkable.
Told from the perspective of Thea Barfoed, a divorced actor and recovering alcoholic, Zandvliet interweaves scenes of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf into his narrative. Fascinating and at the same time disorienting, this seesawing between Thea’s role-play and the reality of her life offers the viewer an unobstructed lens into Thea’s mind.
In both stories-within-the-film, Thea lives inside the hell of a crumbled marriage and children who are lost to her. But where Martha and George’s communications are endlessly violent in the theatrical scenes, there are only brief spurts of fury between Thea and the men in her life. Furthermore, even though there are many cinematic characters – including her ex’s new wife and the two sons she relinquished – the primary focus remains the inner workings of Thea’s mind. This creates a weird silent-film effect in spite of all the action and dialogue.
A relative newcomer, Martin Zandvliet is primarily a documentary filmmaker, and Applause is his first venture into a narrative feature. Paprika Steen is known for her active presence in the Dogme movement of Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. As much at home in comedy as she is in tragedy, Steen is also an accomplished film director in her own right. With such a powerful dream team it’s no wonder that Applause is as disturbing, ambiguous and dryly humorous as any film could be.
At times crawling at a snail’s pace, and often replete with awkwardness, the film often mimics a documentary. To accentuate this all too microscopic realism, Zandvliet expertly strips his sets to the bare minimum, and occasionally moves disarmingly close to his characters with his camera. Filming against magnificent landscapes, Zandvliet also manipulates lighting to create the harshest or most dismal conditions possible. Exposed to such extremes, Thea is able to bounce between aged horror and carefree youth within microseconds. An example of advanced aging used for the purpose of intimidation, is shown in the harshly lit dressing room scene. There, the overly made-up Thea attempts to frighten her young assistant by stretching her sagging facial skin until, as she says, there are two faces. Later, when frolicking with her two young sons near the lake, Thea looks as young and beautiful as any joyful mother could be.
Zandvliet’s technique is yet another means of accessing Thea’s thoughts – made all the more startling by his voyeuristic camera that implicates the viewer into the drama. An example of this is the tumultuous bedroom scene between Thea and Tom, a former lover whose very existence Thea seems to have forgotten about in her alcoholic haze. It is that moment of recollection portrayed so provocatively in her eyes that creates a fresh wave of discomfort for the viewer.
In spite of it’s theatrical camouflage and interspersed dry comedy, Applause is such a powerfully realistic, psychologically-induced masterpiece that it should almost come with a warning. Filled with the apprehension and ambiguity all human beings experience at some point in their lives, it is definitely not for those seeking passive entertainment, or the faint of heart.
Amy R. Handler is a Boston-based film-maker, film scholar, writer and critic.