Danish director Isabella Eklöf delivers a merciless, but skilfully-thrown gut-punch with her feature film debut ‘Holiday’ (based on a novel by the film’s co-writer Johanne Algren).
Reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Planet Terror', it opens with a dancer gyrating, thrashing, trapped in a dark, empty room. Her moves become increasingly angry and frenzied until the scene ends. It’s an effective piece of foreshadowing for what is to come.
‘Holiday’ takes place in the picturesque Turkish Riviera with its sun, sand and alcohol. It follows a young, long-limbed Danish girl named Sascha, played by Victoria Carmen Sonne, on a vacation to visit her wealthy, older boyfriend, Michael (Lai Yde)... and the criminal gang of which he’s the kingpin. The audience knows only as much about the workings of the crime syndicate as Sascha knows (something about property development deals), and sees only what she sees - which is to say not much.
Sascha arrives in Turkey with a suitcase of cash. After she dips into the money to buy an expensive swimsuit and avoid embarrassing herself in front of a retail clerk, a handsome associate of Michael's metes out two hard slaps to her face, along with a warning of more violence to come. Soon after, at a jewellery store with Michael, Sascha goes for emeralds over diamonds. Michael, whose finances are seemingly limitless, compliments her expensive taste and his crew delights in her beauty.
When she encounters funny, handsome Dutch yacht owner Tomas (Thijs Römer) while buying an ice cream, the flirty banter between the gangster’s moll and the adventurer seems to offer Sascha an escape to some semblance of normality. They do MDMA on the beach and delight in each other's company.
Imagine a version of Anthony Minghella’s ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, with its yachts, sun-drenched beatific locations and head trauma, that didn’t focus on the avaricious Tom Ripley. Imagine a thriller that followed the journey of the largely powerless Marge and her romance with the wealthy, charismatic but brutal Dickie Greenleaf. Now throw in the pastel-hues and meticulously symmetrical shots of a Wes Anderson film and the simmering tension of Jonathan Glazer's 'Sexy Beast', and you have something that's close to Eklöf's ‘Holiday’.
As Michael’s goofy crime family kicks back at his nouveau riche mansion and blasts obnoxious techno music on the beach, it’s all water parks and junk food, tacky resort wear and booze. There are also many disturbing acts of violence, in the vein of Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noé. In fact, the realism in a few of those scenes, or the aftermath, can make it very tough to watch.
Cinematographer Nadim Carlsen applies an unwavering, observational eye to a long take where Sascha is raped by her partner and crime boss in his living room. Filmed with natural sound and a steady camera in plain lighting, from an observational distance as if the audience were an indifferent spectator, it is raw, and without exaggeration in a way that creates a feeling of gruesome realism. Her rape isn’t what the film is about, but it does represent a turning point in the movie where its tone crosses the cinematic Rubicon. At this point, the film goes from simply being dark to infernally, pitch-black dark.
There are also many disturbing acts of violence, in the vein of Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noé. In fact, the realism in a few of those scenes, or the aftermath, can make it very tough to watch.
Victoria Carmen Sonne’s portrayal of an ambitious young woman looking for her place in this seductive world is complex and deeply felt. Sascha is at turns bored and curious, naive and calculated. Staring at herself in a mirrored nightclub (as a disco-infused Hercules & Love Affair track, 'Blind', throbs in the background), it is unclear if she is more horrified of what she sees emerging in herself or in the environment behind her. ‘Holiday’ tacitly invites viewers to consider whether Sascha is purely an unlucky victim or masochistically complicit in her own debasement.
Visual symmetry aside, the prevalent theme of ‘Holiday’ is that darkness dwells in the center of things. We watch seemingly charming characters with violence bubbling away under the surface, a criminal gang infiltrating a family resort location, a harrowing scene of sexual violence that occurs in the dead centre of the film. This theme is embodied in Sascha, who becomes increasingly dehumanized the longer she exists in an environment of toxic male abuse.
Mostly an exploration of sexuality, threat and male violence from a female perspective, before becoming a depiction of an injured woman’s rage, ‘Holiday’ is an extremely shocking, sociological thriller and an incredibly impressive debut.