Testosterone-fuelled gangster film sticks with you, but not for the better

Manon Girault on Isabella Eklöf’s ‘Holiday’ (2018)

IN ISABELLA EKLOF’S FIRST FEATURE FILM Holiday, the Swedish filmmaker visits the testosterone-fueled gangster genre to debunk the media’s standardised “male gaze.” The money-throbbing context, englobing the film’s narrative, serves to question gender and power dynamics in today’s societies. Yet, throughout her film, Eklöf’s deployment of a hardcore, carnal language is guaranteed to make spectators exit the theatre feeling very unsettled.

The film commences in the company of Sasha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) an attractive Dane in her mid-twenties, as she exits the deserted Bodrum airport. Despite her grand entrance, she is largely identified in relation to her drug-lord boyfriend, Michael (Lai Yde). She behaves to his content. Together, along with her Boss’s criminal entourage, they whisk away for a lengthy sojourn in a luxurious villa. However, the Turkish Riviera is only there to fool spectators into believing that nothing could go wrong in such a paradisiac place. When Sasha indulges in some harmless flirting with Dutch traveler, Thomas, Michael will eventually exert his outrage onto Sasha, who surprisingly accepts that every holiday comes with a price to pay.

Throughout the film, the Bodrum landscape performs as an ‘object’ of awakening for Sasha, a truth-teller always too far out of reach. Holiday mainly takes place within interiors, either in the rented villa, in an entirely reserved section of a restaurant, or in night clubs, heightening Sasha’s captivity that she appears unperturbed by. A sequence in which Sasha gets her shawl tangled into her bike’s wheel, and when she is finally left adrift in harsh nature, illustrates her falsified sense of freedom. It is also the only occasion we witness Sasha interacting with locals, who attempt to inform her about the danger that she could later confront.

Eklöf’s use of a divergent, female perspective is definitely significant. In certain ways, and although not for the best reasons, Sasha remains a strong lead throughout the film. She certainly is able ‘to deal with’ her suffocation, which she cannot and may not prefer to externalise it. Instead, her literal scars speak for the pain that truthfully is itching inside of her. However, as spectators we desperately wonder what is stopping her from running away and whether one is willing to accept abuse as the price to pay for lavish living. Though Eklöf’s film features a recognisably combatant woman, we are to assume that it is her way of proving that a human-being is never entirely nor good nor bad.

Indeed, Sasha is a morally ambiguous protagonist, illustrated at its best in a notable night club sequence. The young Dane dances with her own reflection for over five minutes. She is aware of the need to meet her gaze and confront her haunting, darker doppelganger. She knows about her wrong-decision making, but insofar prefers to accept that pain and pleasure come hand-in-hand. An awakening from her end would have been expected mid-way or towards the end of the film. Instead, Eklöf defies our expectations. The protagonist ‘chooses’ Michael over Thomas as well as indulging in short-term fulfilment and seeing money as buying happiness.

At its worst, Holiday includes an overly graphic, dragging rape scene echoing the same nauseating portrayal and uncertain motivation of Gaspar Noe in his Irreversible (2002). This decision to willingly portray rape on film raises the ethical concern about: a) how to best represent a rape scene b) when should it should be tolerated even if proven to be conducting force in the narrative. The sequence such as the one in which Michael is one step away from taking advantage of a passed-out Sasha hints towards the young Dane already being a victim of emotional and physical abuse. Whether the rape sequence remains a justified necessity in the film, without fetishising the act or tormenting the spectator in a perverse way, creates conflicting thoughts.

Contrary to the title, Holiday is no easy watch, made so by Eklöf’s ambiguous motivation to depict physical abuse on screen. Neither do we ever fully understand which character we are designed to sympathise with. Eklöf’s film definitely sticks with you, but not for the better. The happy ending, in such a context, can only be a mirage.

Release: July 15, 2019

Manon Girault

By Manon Girault

Manon Girault is a freelance writer, producer, and documentary filmmaker. She graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King’s College London and Ethnographic & Documentary Film (MA) from University College London.