"Applause": Paprika Steen Outshines Dim Direction

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's Myrtle Gordon, another aging, alcoholic actress, in John Cassavetes's Opening Night. Danish director Martin Pieter Zandvliet, making his feature debut, co-wrote 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, who's 46 and is often shot in stark close-up, navigates one of the trickiest roles to play — the mercurial diva of a certain age — without relying on camp shorthand. Usually an enervating process to witness onscreen, 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. Whereas Opening Night delves into the alchemy of meta-acting, focusing on Rowlands/Myrtle transforming into her role within a role onstage, Applause skips the potentially mesmerizing process altogether, simply interspersing 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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