Paprika Steen: an actress who can use the subtlest elements of her art to create a character both entirely believable, yet larger than life

Love it or hate it, the Dogme Manifesto has been hugely influential since Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg puckishly penned it in 1995. Though a Dogme film hasn’t been produced since 2005, the Manifesto’s lessons and strictures have since become part of the DNA of Danish cinema.

During its lifetime, Dogme’s results were mixed: for every success such as Kristian Levring’s memorable King Lear adaptation The King Is Alive (2000), there was an unwatchable piece of nonsense such as Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy (1999). Even Dogme haters, however, can be grateful for one of the Manifesto’s unanticipated benefits, actress Paprika Steen.

The only thespian to appear in the first three Dogmes (Vinterberg’s The Celebration, von Trier’s The Idiots, and Soren Kragh-Jacobson’s Mifune’s Last Song), Steen was already in early middle age by the time she became a film star. Now closing in on 50, Steen continues to deliver quality performances in films such as Applause, a powerful character study opening this Friday, April 13th at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.

Written and directed by newcomer Martin Zandvliet, Applause features Steen as Thea, a stage actress with a boatload of problems. Aging less than gracefully, Thea’s penchant for hard liquor has caused her to lose custody of sons William and Matthias to ex-husband Christian (Michael Falch).

Determined to regain her visitation rights, Thea tries to prove her trustworthiness by befriending Christian’s new partner Majken (Sara-Marie Maltha). At first relations are somewhat frosty, but the gift of a new coffee maker breaks the ice. Emboldened by her apparent breakthrough, Thea pours her remaining booze down the drain, pays her lengthy tab at the corner bar, and enjoys a mineral water with a lemon slice. Sobriety, surely, is just around the corner.

Mistaking minor steps for major progress, however, Thea immediately begins scheming to win partial custody of the children. Unscheduled schoolyard visits, indulgent toy-buying binges, and an appointment with a social worker signal her intentions, but an unanticipated dalliance with barhopping Berliner Tom (Shanti Roney) throws a monkey wrench into her plans. By film’s end, Thea is forced to acknowledge she may not be suitable parental material after all.

Exorcising demons

Zandvliet intercuts Applause’s dramatic developments with excerpts from Thea’s stage performance as Martha, an alcoholic whose relationships are secondary to her desire for drink. Drawing obvious parallels between Martha and Thea, these scenes underscore Thea’s attempts to exorcise her demons both on stage and backstage, where she bends the elbow during costume changes.

Unsurprisingly, Zandvliet is not entirely immune to the influence of Dogme, with much of his film shot handheld and with ambient, unsweetened sound. Lighting is minimal and there’s no extraneous action, but his heretical use of non-diegetic music — in this case, a sparse Sune Martin score suggests he is far from being in thrall to the Manifesto’s limitations.

However, it’s Steen — an actress who can use the subtlest elements of her art to create a character both entirely believable, yet larger than life — who makes this film essential viewing. Two scenes in particular stand-out: the first, when Thea attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and expresses her disdain for the proceedings without saying a word; the second, when she invites Tom back to her apartment and then can’t quite figure out why.  Both scenes are masterful examples of onscreen improvisation.

Her performance in Applause earned Steen the Best Actress Robert Award (the Danish equivalent of an Oscar) in 2010 — her second Robert and sixth nomination since the turn of the century. Would it overstate the case to suggest Steen is every bit the equal of America’s Meryl Streep? Not at all. She may not be as accomplished a mimic as Streep, but she’s twice the actress. Check out Applause and see for yourself.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...