Addicts of all types call it recovery, a far more hopeful term than the gritty reality, where time without abuse is measured in minutes. Danish director Martin Pieter Zandvliet trains an unforgiving eye on that dark journey in "Applause," the lens so close to star Paprika Steen's face that the woes and wrongs of a lifetime can be charted in pockmarks and ridges.
It is just one of many brave choices made by both filmmaker and star. Steen is one of Denmark's leading lights, probably best known here as the daughter in a destructing family in "The Celebration," a Jury Prize winner at Cannes in '98. In "Applause," Zandvliet and Steen create an unvarnished saga of a recovering alcoholic whose acting career makes all that teetering on the edge of one-day-at-a-time very public. It is a singular performance and a deeply affecting if imperfect film.
The centerpiece is Steen, unflinchingly real as Thea — newly sober, trying out an unsedated existence and hoping to reclaim custody of her young sons, Mattias (Noel Koch-Sofeldt) and William, played by Steen's son Otto Leonardo Steen Rieks. The film opens with a scene from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," with Thea scathing as the bitter, boozy Martha, but soon enough things shift to the real world with a shot of Steen silent, reflective, smoking — holding the cigarette as if it is all that tethers her to the world.
Everywhere Thea turns, she is surrounded by the debris of her past. The wounded children, afraid to trust a mother who loves them passionately but lets them down. The ex (a superb Michael Falch, who, like Steen, bares soul and scars), wearing his frustrations like a shroud. Sara-Marie Maltha as the stepmother, kind to the boys and a psychiatrist by trade, so not fooled by Thea. Malou Reymann as her much abused dresser. And Shanti Roney, terrific as the barfly she takes home only to discover they've been together in her boozy blackout days. The narrative tracks Thea as she picks through the ruins, trying to fix things, tentative at times, manipulative at others.
Zandvliet co-wrote "Applause" with Anders Frithiof August, whose soft spot for the ironies of ordinary existence — see the bittersweet Oscar-nominated short film "Grisen" (The Pig) — helps color the film. Together they keep things rocking between Thea's personal and professional worlds, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes jarringly abrupt, but always with the idea of illuminating the emotional currents that reflect the hard work of sobriety.
Onstage it's easier for Thea — there are no boundaries. Each night she offers up a drunken, raging Martha as an emotional surrogate, an indirect way to put her boozed life under the microscope. Soon, though, the language of the theater is bleeding into Thea's real-life conflicts, never more chillingly than in an argument with her ex, echoing nearly word for word one of Martha's onstage rants, the line between illusion and reality increasingly blurred.
In this, Zandvliet got a gift: reams of footage shot during Steen's tour de force run of the Edward Albee play in a Copenhagen theater not long before the film began. It is raw in style, grainy in texture, and he makes liberal use of it, with cinematographer Jesper Toffner extending the texture throughout the film. It creates an edgy palette, leeched of bright colors, and goes a long way to deepen the already dark mood.
As assured as Thea is onstage, the real world confounds her, perfectly captured in a toy store buying binge, where she is at a loss as to what her boys might like. She vacillates between unrepentant diva — scathing with her dresser, impatient with her fans ("I hate ordinary people," she says in a moment of pique) — to remorseful sinner, apologetic with her kids. It is in exposing Thea's desperation and vulnerability that Steen is at her best, emotions barely under control as she tries to convince everyone that she is better.
This is Zandvliet's first feature film after years spent on the international surfing circuit, all the while experimenting with shorts and documentary work, most notably 2002's "Angels of Brooklyn." That peripatetic nature dogs the film, and though you can feel the Cassavetes influences that Zandvliet says inspired him, he hasn't yet mastered the legendary filmmaker's art of carefully controlling the chaos.
If the film did nothing but showcase Steen's formidable talents that would be enough, but "Applause" leaves you wanting more, curious to see what this promising filmmaker will do next.
MPAA rating: R for language; in Danish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: In selected theaters