When considering acts of sexual violence in film, male provocateurs such as Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible and Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave may come to mind. Long-time considered as some of cinemas most brutal depictions of rape, their notoriety may soon be squandered to first-time Swedish director Isabella Eklöf’s unforgiving slow-burn crime drama, Holiday.
While not initially perverse in its nature, Eklöf’s work is undoubtedly challenging from the get-go. We follow Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), a young trophy girlfriend on a luxurious holiday in Bodrum, Turkey, with her drug lord boyfriend and his cohorts. She’s presented in a similar fashion to Taxi Driver’s Iris, in a cropped off-the-shoulder top, high-waisted shorts and wedged heels, and revels in her days of shopping on boyfriend Michael’s (Lai Yde) credit card and doing essentially nothing other than eating good and lounging by the pool.
Amongst the grandeur of fine jewellery and golden beaches, a bleak quality sits amongst every moment within the villa walls. Sascha is merely Michael’s plaything, a puppet in his grand scheme of power plays, one of the many pawns he uses and abuses on a daily basis. Sascha bears witness to this, seeing Michael beat lower-ranking gang members when jobs and deals go awry. Aside from his violent outbursts, Michael is borderline boring, the only way he manages to command the screen is when committing various assaults. This is a testament to the writing of Eklöf and screenwriting partner Johanne Algren, who acknowledge that Michael’s power certainly isn’t coming from a place of leadership skills or charisma. His first assault on Sascha is particularly skin-crawling, after a night of heavy drinking she passes out in their bed and he slowly manoeuvres her lifeless limbs into bondage positions as he deliberates whether to have sex with her unconscious body.
From this point on the cracks of this glistening lifestyle begin to show, Sascha seeks solace in the warming smile of a Dutch man, Thomas (Thijs Römer), she meets in an ice cream shop. Intrigued by his genuine interest in her and also his yacht tied up in the docks, they begin a friendship more wholesome than the rest of the film combined. Given this new found love interest and her increasing awareness of Michael’s behaviour towards her you wouldn’t be a fool to think that the films central character deserves some retribution; Eklöf however has other plans.
The film quickly plummets to icy cold depths of indignity, with an explicit rape scene done to competition. It is a vile and degrading act, shot on the shiny cold floor that leaves nothing but emptiness in its final moments, and is easily one of the most shocking scenes of this nature ever put to film. For a female filmmaker to shoot such a scene and get that strong gut reaction of disgust feels like an achievement; the brutality of such actions finally immortalised in the most head-on and naturalistic way. But it also feels sadistic. It certainly does not feel like a time to be violently commandeering women’s bodies as a display of men’s power (men fucking suck, we know). Especially when that lead character possesses little in the way of personality or self-assertion. Sascha remains unchanged and deeply immature, continuing on with her life of actions without consequences. She is seen as nothing more than a toy, that she “needs the attention of men…. and she grows from it”. But there is no growth at all. This lack of development feels incredibly mis-led as some kind of statement about cycles of abuse but ultimately it feels empty and heartless.
Sascha is shallow, and the films feels it too. Its surface level depictions of violence against women do little to allow its character autonomy and there is only so much room for provocation until the weight of the story needs a sense of momentum that Holiday lacks. It is no doubt a complicated film, one that forces viewers to confront the way they view sexual violence through both the male and female gaze. It’s also a daring choice for a debut, just unfortunately one that seems incredibly out of touch with the current climate, its cruel and unforgiving nature becoming far too hard to shake.
Dir: Isabella Eklöf
Scr: Johanne Algren, Isabella Eklöf
Cast: Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde, Thijs Römer
Prd: David B. Sørensen, Jannik A. Sørensen
DOP: Nadim Carlsen
Music: Martin Dirkov
Runtime: 93 minutes
Holiday is released on DVD and VOD on February 26th.