The slippery soul of an actor is put under a microscope in Applause, a small, intense Danish drama about an acclaimed stage actor working to rebuild her life after a messy divorce and in the midst of on-again/off-again alcoholism. Her nights are spent onstage starring in a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as the delusional and unabashedly drunken Martha.
From this funhouse-mirror setup, director Martin Pieter Zandvliet builds a revelatory Portrait of the Artist as a Near-Middle-Aged Woman. He wrote the role for Paprika Steen, the revered Dogme 95 actor; her real-life performance as Martha in a Copenhagen production of Woolf is interspersed throughout the film. In another filmmaker's hands, the struggling-alcoholic-actor-cast-as-an-unrepentant-alcoholic-character arrangement could result in broad theatrics, but both director and star take care to keep Applause small and true to life.
Our protagonist isn't just a drunk—she's a high-functioning drunk, and every day she does a new and different dance with the bottle. And she's not another tragically romantic grande dame of the theater—she's a tough, cool, successful theater artist, one who's seen John Cassavetes's Opening Night and lives in fear of ever coming off like All About Eve's Margo Channing.
The layering of the star's motivations makes Applause a heady puzzle. It's never possible to tell when she's being driven by the motivations of an alcoholic egotist, or a desperately repentant mother, or a professional crazy woman. Scenes of the weird anger-management issues that befall dry drunks rub up against scenes of star treatment and the isolation that comes with it, and Steen lets the camera into the messiest minutiae of it all, refusing to slip into any type of defense or judgment of her character. The film closes with the sense that expecting anyone else to understand her world is the greatest insanity of all.
Natural Selection, the debut film of writer/director Robbie Pickering, is another film built around a quietly monolithic female performance, though Pickering's protagonist is hobbled by problems beyond the scope of the all-but-vérité Applause. Left barren after a problematic early pregnancy, a thirtysomething Texas housewife has settled into a sexless marriage with her extreme Christian husband who believes non-procreative sex, even within holy matrimony, to be a sin. These are Christians we haven't really seen onscreen before—ones willing to make the sexual sacrifices they demand so easily of others in the name of biblical purity, and Natural Selection spends its first stretch of minutes establishing the small, odd world of these sexless lovebirds. When a medical emergency puts the husband in intensive care, he reveals his secret: a now-adult son, born of long-ago-donated sperm, currently living in Florida. Wife Linda sets out to find the son and return him to his father's deathbed, and a road-trip dramedy ensues.
As the drably passionate Linda, Rachael Harris is completely wonderful. Best known for razor-sharp comedy, Harris is an actor you'll know by sight if not by name; she's sassed off for years as a pop-culture talking head on VH1 and appeared in numerous sitcoms. Here she makes the pretty actress anti-transformation (greasy, flat hair and unflattering glasses), then carefully brings it to life. Her character is an odd woman with extreme beliefs and weird emotional needs, but in Harris's care, she's never a joke. The same can't be said for Matt O'Leary, cast as the wayward grown son, who attacks his role of a meth-addled Florida hick like he's auditioning for a sketch-comedy parody of Cops. Once he enters the picture, the film goes straight downhill, crashing into mile-wide clichés and if-you-say-so road-trip shenanigans. It's a shame.