A Big Hand for Paprika Steen in "Applause"

Appearing in every frame of Applause, Thea Barfoed (Paprika Steen), an aging actress and recovering alcoholic trying to get her life back together, is a woman under the influence — of Gena Rowlands' Myrtle Gordon, another aging, alcoholic actress, in John Cassavetes' Opening Night. Danish director Martin Pieter Zandvliet, making his feature debut, cowrote Applause expressly as a vehicle for Steen. As besotted as Zandvliet obviously is with the combustible Cassavetes/Rowlands collaboration from 1977, his film too often relies on slack maternal-weepie material, as the drama of Thea's offstage life revolves around her increasingly desperate demands for more involvement in the lives of her two young sons. More satisfying are the moments when Thea is thoroughly repellent. Steen's subtle calibrations of self-hatred and raging narcissism exhilarate. And yet this memorable, soaring performance remains tethered to the ground by Zandvliet's frustrating literal-mindedness. Applause simply intersperses footage from Steen's actual, recent stage performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Steen has the aplomb of an actress who knows the fine distinctions between big, messy emotions and scenery-chewing. If only her director had similar confidence.

 
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