Actors love, love, love to play damaged characters; such car-wreck-in-progress portraits guarantee the chance to portray curdled humanity in extremis. We, of course, lap it up in turn: Most of us would change zip codes to avoid Lesley Manville's desperate drunk from Another Year or Gwyneth Paltrow's suicidal songbird from Country Strong in real life, but we'll eagerly watch them exorcise demons onscreen. And with this raw tale of a theater legend on the rebound, both moviegoing masochists and Danish star Paprika Steen have been given a gift from the Dreyeresque heavens.
An unapologetic diva and queen-size mess, Steen's Thea Barfoed somehow manages to keep treading the boards every night (that the play is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf already suggests that the art-imitating-life meter is heading into the red). Offstage, she's trying to stay sober and show her ex (Falch) she can care for her estranged sons. Given that Thea's got major anger-management problems and destructive barflies like "Tom from Berlin" (Roney) keep reentering her orbit, these goals may be unattainable.
It's a question of when, rather than if, relapses and rage spirals will occur, and even tender scenes like an afternoon playdate leave a how-will-she-screw-this-up aftertaste. Director Martin Zandvliet doesn't avoid the miserablist melodramatics any more than he hides his Cassavetes homages; the filmmaker knows this is a showcase for Steen to pull a Gena Rowlands, and she more than takes advantage of the opportunity. Whether sulking, screaming or stepping over personal boundaries, Steen sketches out a woman unable to reconcile a lifetime of neediness and narcissism. Her emotional acrobatics are reason enough to sit through Applause's parade of pain, though it's a movie to admire rather than enjoy. You'll put your hands together for the powerful performance---and clap louder once it's over.