Thea Barfoed, acclaimed stage actress, is an alcoholic, and a nasty one at that. She’s lost her husband to another woman, and has been denied access to her two children for some time. She can hardly complain; she passed out dead-drunk while they were in her care. Now she’s determined to sober up and get access to her kids again, but quitting without professional help comes with no guarantees.
Thea is, coincidentally as far as the plot goes — although, of course, far from coincidence in terms of the comparative opportunities it offers — performing in a theatrical version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as the drunken wife, Martha, who lashes out at husband George. Her performance is good and honest, and is scattered throughout Applause, thus allowing us to spot the obvious relationship between onstage and offstage Thea. Onstage she launches into one drunken attack after another; offstage it’s generally her poor young dresser that catches the flak while Thea knocks down another stiff one. She’s in her mid-forties, and the looks she no doubt used to her advantage in her younger years are fading. Soon, perhaps, she’ll start to realize this herself, but it’s amazing how distorted one’s reflection can be from the bottom of a drained glass.
She asks ex-husband Christian (Michael Falch) if she could see her kids again. He agrees, as long as he and his new partner Maiken (Sara-Marie Maltha) can attend too. The five trudge around Copenhagen Zoo and the kids warm to their mother once more, despite her previous indiscretions, for that is what kids do. They’re not ruined by adulthood, they just accept things. This visit inspires Thea to clean up and seek custody, for she is their mother after all; all she needs to do is quit drinking and prove that she can be relied upon.
This, of course, is the hard part. After one day sober she swears to Christian that she’s clean and suggests that perhaps the kids could stay with her one week out of every two. Christian has first-hand experience of the trustworthiness or otherwise of a drunk and declines. The actress has a touch of the diva about her and is not used to people saying no. She decides to go down the legal path in order to get visitation rights despite quite clearly not being ready for it. Being sober for a day is a grand step, I grant you, but it isn’t as big an accomplishment as being sober for two, or three, or more.
There is but one reason to watch Applause, and that is the performance of Paprika Steen as Thea. Put simply, she is magnificent. She has a multitude of emotions and feelings to convey, and succeeds with every passing frame. Early on, she is the most horrid drunk, bawling out at her dresser, her husband, and two girls who try to take her photo surreptitiously on their phones. Later we see her attend an AA meeting where she yawns throughout the sad stories of others and rolls her eyes towards the ceiling. There’s a long history of drunken actors portrayed in movies, and I just assumed that this would be another, but it is not. As Steen mellows she adopts a more self-critical stance, questioning her looks in the mirror and frequently appearing in her underwear. Neither is flattering to her, and it is once more to her credit that she was prepared to appear in such a way. She complains of her old skin (‘dog’s skin’, she calls it), and pulls what she claims is a kilo of skin back behind her neck, making her face appear grotesque. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as we can see genuine joy when in the company of her kids. The years roll off her far more effectively than plastic surgery could ever hope to achieve when she plays war games with young William and Matthias in her plush apartment. Thea knows what she wants, but can desire overcome addition?
This brings me back to the story itself, which ultimately is a little skinny. It lacks the cohesion and completeness of other, similar movies concerning addicts trying to dry out, and is filmed in realist style by director Martin Zandvliet, who also co-wrote. Perhaps, with another actor in its starring role, the story of Applause would have more of a chance to shine, but that is not the case here. It is all about Paprika Steen, who deserves all the, um, applause that she gets. She is brilliant, simply brilliant.