I may have seen her before, but it wasn't until I saw Applause that the name of actress Paprika Steen stuck in my head. Now I can't get her off my mind.
In Martin Zandvliet's Applause, opening Friday in limited release, she plays Thea, a popular Danish actress who is playing Martha in a stage production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Edward Albee's corrosive play is an uncomfortable mirror to Thea's offstage life, a device that works here precisely because no one talks about it (or even mentions the name of the play she's doing).
In fact, Thea is fresh out of rehab. A hard-living alcoholic whose career was threatened by her drinking, she's sober and struggling, playing this difficult role while dealing with the aftermath of her former life.
Specifically, she's divorced from Christian (Michael Falch), and has surrendered custody of her two sons. But now she feels able to deal with the kids and seeks her ex-husband's cooperation in becoming part of their lives again.
But nothing is easy for Thea. Without alcohol, the world is a more real place and she has no buffer against it. One imagines her drunk and imperious, playing the star - but now she seems to be caught in a different reality, one from which she has no easily accessible hiding place.
Applause is less a story than one woman's journey -- not to herself so much as to an understanding of what her life has become (or perhaps, to what it really is). She's been so removed from it in the past that, though sober, she's still figuring out who she is now.
Steen glosses over nothing. Her Thea is not a monster, just an imperfect human being trying to overcome her flaws or, at a minimum, work around them. She is smart and sharp-tongued, but also a woman in pain who sees vulnerability as weakness. She longs for someone to care for her - to take care of her -- but can't quite bring herself to trust others not to use her for who she is.
And her interaction with her children can be jaw-dropping. She seems emotionally unequipped to be a mother; she loves the kids but doesn't appear to understand what they need from her as a mother and a parent, rather than as a playmate.
It's as naked a performance by an actress as I can remember in recent years, a portrait of a woman living on nerve alone. It doesn't get much more raw than Paprika Steen in Applause - and in a more just universe, the film and her performance would be part of the Oscar discussion, instead of an imported curiosity.