Kino Lorber // 2009 // 83 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 27th, 2013
Sometimes life is the hardest performance of all.
There's a danger to acting too well, at least in certain roles. Though he did some fine work later in his career, Anthony Perkins never quite recovered from Psycho typecasting. Similarly, Benecio Del Toro claims his career was sidelined for two years after his appearance in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; casting agents couldn't believe he was acting and instead assumed that he'd just let himself go, making him unemployable. There are dangers even for the less career-obsessed, as numerous commentators have noted the toll playing The Joker took on Heath Ledger in the months before his death. Danish drama Applause covers similar territory, taking an actress struggling to put her life back together even while she plays one of the stage's most notoriously out-of-control characters. The film is home to a strong central performance, but the rest of the movie isn't really strong enough to bear that weight.
Thea Barfoed (Paprika Steen, The Substitute) is a walking mess. Her alcoholism has turned her adult sons away from her, and almost taken her livelihood of acting. She's trying to sober up, though, to win back her sons and revive her career. The only problem is that she's playing Martha, the famous alcoholic from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and we watch as she struggles to balance her life and work.
Many filmmakers have used literature as a way to frame or comment on the story they're telling in pictures. Tarantino did it in Django Unchained, giving his main character a mythic quest to compliment his rage. He's not alone. It's a good idea, at least sometimes, as the familiar touchstones of literature help viewers get a handle on the world of the film. Applause, however, demonstrates how it can all go wrong. Edward Albee's play is a touchstone of modern drama, a contemporary classic and it was brought to screen by the tempestuous real-life couple of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The mistake in featuring it in a film like Applause is that as viewers we're much more fascinated by what's going on in Albee's play than we ever are in Thea Barfoed's familial difficulties.
The main problem with the film is that it has no idea what to do with its central character. The plot isn't quite a three-hanky story of redemption, nor is it an occasion to revel in bad behavior (like many cinematic portraits of drunken men). It doesn't illuminate for us Thea's problems, or really cast a light on to why she might end up the way she does. Sure, there's a gesture towards her gigantic personality and the overwhelming responsibility of fame (deferred with a bottle), but these facts don't tell us much. Instead, we get a lot of close-ups of Thea as she whips her acid tongue at other people, or sighs in despair at the mess she's made of her life.
I can't, however, complain about Paprika Steen's performance. Whether she's busting her way through her performance as Martha (taken, apparently, from an actual production of the play Steen performed in a year prior to Applause) or interacting with her fellow failures at the bar she brings a ravaged will to every moment. Most actresses (at least in Hollywood) would shy away from the role of Thea -- director Martin Zandvliet gives us lots of close-ups on Thea's face. The miles she's worn into herself are clearly emphasized, with odd lighting and no makeup to soften the fact that she has wrinkles and doesn't look nineteen anymore. The film was shot digitally, and the grain of the low-light images does nothing to help her either. I don't want to reduce her performance to "not looking conventionally attractive," but Steen deserves credit for the rawness of her portrayal, both physically and emotionally.
The DVD, at least, is pretty solid. The film's shot-on-HD 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer seems to do the film justice. The whole thing was shot in what looks like available light, with no attempts to soften or pretty up the image. That means we can definitely see digital grain, colors can go wonky, and detail is sometimes hidden by a lack of light. However, that seems to be a "problem" with the source, not this transfer, which presents these elements as well as it can. The Danish stereo audio track is similarly a bit raw, with dialogue a bit hard to make out (not like I speak Danish, but the sounds aren't always crystal clear), but the included English subtitles make that a non-issue.
Sadly, there are no extras.
Applause features a brave and compelling performance from Paprika Steen. Sadly, the rest of the film is a timid drama that doesn't quite live up to Steen's benchmark. Fans of Danish film will appreciate the solid audiovisual presentation, but the lack of extras make it hard to recommend anything more than a rental for this one.
Not guilty, but not for everybody.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site