Friday, December 03, 2010

In Contention: Paprika Steen in Applause

For an actress straight out of rehab, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? might not be the best comeback vehicle. Indeed, for Thea Barfoed, the role of Martha is only too fitting. Still, there is no denying it is a tour de force performance, both for Barfoed on-stage and Paprika Steen bringing her to life on-screen. If not a household name, the Danish star of Dogme 95 classics like Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration should definitely be in Academy Award contention for her fearless work in Martin Pieter Zandvliet’s Applause (trailer here), which begins a special one-week Oscar qualifying run today in Los Angeles.

Barfoed is like a Lindsay Lohan with talent. She makes a show of her sobriety, but she spends more time off the wagon than on. Having voluntarily relinquished her two boys to their father Christian, she now wants back in their lives. He agrees for their sake, but only to an extent. It is hard to blame him. After a few binges, it is clear she remains a stranger to stability.

From her embarrassingly transparent attempts to win over Christian’s new wife Maiken to her casual hostility towards her theater dresser, we quickly understand there is something seriously flawed with the way Barfoed relates to others. She is openly contemptuous of her public, yet she still craves their attention. To call her a train wreck of conflicting neuroses does a disservice to train wrecks, but it is impossible not to gawk at her self-destructive behavior.

Utilizing footage of her real life stage turn in a Danish revival of Albee’s play, Applause really represents two performances in one for Steen. While the parallels between Barfoed the thespian and Martha the character are plainly obvious, they effectively reinforce viewers’ mounting uneasiness with the problematic protagonist. Yet, for all her ill-contained psychological turmoil, one is still always wondering if Barfoed still has any semblance of a soul buried within her.

Steen is scary good as Barfoed. Unflattering, unlikable, and uncompromising, it is not a performance tailor-made for Oscar love, but the sheer power of Steen’s work should give Academy voters the necessary knock alongside the head—if they see it, that is. There is no question Applause is Steen’s picture lock, stock and barrel, but Michael Falch is also quite good tacking a more understated course as the exasperated Christian.

With its reasonably professional lighting and an often distracting electronic non-diegetic soundtrack, Applause falls short of the rigid criteria of the Dogme 95 school of grungily realistic filmmaking. However, its grainy look and handheld camera work show the lingering influence of the Dogme aesthetic.

Throughout Applause, Steen puts on an acting clinic. Granted, her character might trouble many viewers, but it is supposed to. Searingly intense, it opens its limited run today (12/3) in LA at the Sunset 5, in advance of its regular New York theatrical engagement at the Village East on January 21st.