On stage in Applause, actress Thea Barfoed (Paprika Steen) is celebrated for her blistering presence as raging, boozing Martha in a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Off stage, though, Thea has been a raging boozer too, sinking into alcoholism so destructive that it has cost her her marriage and access to her two young sons. The ravaged and frightened, angry and regretful, famous yet lonely middle- aged alcoholic struggles to get back on her feet again in this terrific Danish drama and character study, directed and co-written by Martin Pieter Zandvliet. But the steps are shaky. And as Thea crawls uncertainly toward recovery, the everyday life for which she receives no applause is sometimes indistinguishable from the role that brings her bravos.
Steen is best known in the U.S. for her work in Lars von Trier's Dogme 95 movement and her role in Susanne Bier's Open Hearts (and famous at home for her actual stage performance as Martha). Here she brings a thrilling emotional nakedness and an astringent, unsentimental honesty to the part. And in his debut feature, the director is wise enough to move his hand-held camera wherever Steen wants to go, sometimes just watching her convey a dozen feelings at once in the course of sitting, silent and twitchy and lighting a cigarette. A–