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Toronto International Film Festival

The 'Applause' is just beginning for Martin Pieter Zandvliet

Remember the name. The Danish surf cinematographer and film editor has turned writer-director with a story about parenting and abandonment, inspired by his early life. Accolades are flowing.

September 17, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

TORONTO — Before Danish director Martin Pieter Zandvliet began production on "Applause," his aching exploration of motherhood, alcoholism and the theater starring a shattering Paprika Steen, he put himself through a round of Gestalt therapy to help set aside anything that might dilute his focus.

The result is a film with an emotional honesty on screen so naked, so human that you might feel like a few sessions yourself after seeing it. Developed under the Danish Film Institute's program for emerging artists, "Applause" earned Steen the best actress award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic earlier this year and is among possible Oscar entries for Denmark.

It is a remarkably confident first feature film for the 38-year-old director, but Sunday, just hours before its first screening at the Toronto film festival, confidence was eluding him. Sitting on a ritzy hotel patio, buffeted by a warm breeze, Zandvliet was having a cigarette and a beer, yet he seemed uneasy. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, his black trucker's cap pulled low, he looked as if he was expecting someone to ask him to leave at any moment. (He shouldn't have worried. "Applause" left many in the packed house in tears and producers are now in talks to secure a U.S. theatrical run.)

The painful heart of "Applause's" script, which Zand- vliet began on his own, then finished with Anders Frithiof August, in part grew out of memories of his father, who deserted the family when he was a young boy. Though they've reconnected, more questions than answers remain. "Myself, I'm struggling with a lot of inner problems about my father," he says. "I don't want to follow in his footsteps; still I have great respect for those who have the guts to choose something better for themselves. I know it has a price for the children, but life is about seeking what gives meaning."

From the beginning, Zand- vliet envisioned a woman, rather than a man, in the lead. He wanted the emotional sweep that he believed only an actress could bring. He wanted her to be a creature of the theater, always moving between opposite poles -- the famous artist playing imaginary lives on stage versus wife and mother in a very real world. That Zand- vliet was able to get Steen, one of Denmark's most gifted and prolific actresses, lifted the film's pedigree, and he wrote the character with her in mind.

What Zandvliet asked of Steen was to expose the raw interior life of Thea, a reigning stage diva just out of rehab who is seeking to regain custody of her two young sons. In the real world, she's trying to prove she can be a fit mother, while still seeking refuge in bars -- sometimes with drink, sometimes without. On stage she is Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" -- a performance that gave voice to Thea's own demons. Separate from the film, Steen actually was on stage in the summer of 2008, playing that very role from "Woolf?" -- and footage from her performance has been blended into "Applause."

Wherever we find Thea, she is a mass of contradictions. You see the ravages of life in her face, the essence of a damaged beauty, age creeping up around the edges. With most people, she is easily cruel, dismissive; with her sons, her ex and his new wife, she is desperately vulnerable. The camera moves in close, sparing her nothing, and Steen gives herself over to it.

"I wanted to show a real woman with a real story, with all the problems, the happiness, the grittiness mixed with the beauty," the filmmaker says. "In the beginning Paprika was nervous about it. I said, 'Come over here and look,' and when she saw it she laughed and said, 'I never looked that good, ever,' even though she looks much older than she is."

The French New Wave and films of the '60s and '70s from American directors such as Cassavetes, Scorsese and Fosse are Zandvliet's touchstones, and you can see those influences in "Applause," with its haunting, noirish beauty.

Zandvliet comes to directing by way of water, having spent much of his life surfing around the world, shooting footage of competitions to make a little money along the way. Then 15 years ago, he met cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, who encouraged his interest in film. He began to pick up editing jobs here and there, but after the two collaborated on a documentary in 2002, "Angels of Brooklyn," Zandvliet knew he would never again be content editing others' stories. (The couple, who've been together since, now live in Copenhagen, where Knudsen continues work as a cinematographer. They have a 3-year-old daughter, Zoe, and a baby on the way.)

"Because I'm not schooled in film, I don't really have any tools to lean up against," says Zandvliet. "If I failed at this, I had no idea what I would do, but luckily that didn't happen." He is already at work on two other projects, with several more in the offing.

" 'Applause' has been a very good journey for me," Zandvliet says. "I was able to do it my way. There was always a risk that nothing would work, but I wanted to know: Could I do this?" During the editing process, filmmakers he had worked with stopped by, old friends and others too. When he saw how they reacted to the film, he thought maybe he had something good. "I never describe myself as a director," he says, a little ruefully. "I guess maybe I should start."

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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