The water’s warm and inviting, and that goes for precisely nothing else in “Holiday,” a low-temperature, high-impact debut from Swedish-born writer-director Isabella Eklöf that impresses with its clinical construction and still, penetrating gaze into male violence. Scratch past its smooth, sun-whitened surface, however, and messy questions lie at the nominal heart of this glassy, nasty study of a Danish gangster’s moll caught between the material rewards of her position and the abusive price she pays for it. It’s up for vigorous debate whether “Holiday’s” most shocking material offers substantive commentary on the toxic behavior it portrays, or simply eye-searing observation thereof; a steady female gaze behind the camera tilts the film’s politics in unexpected, deliberately discomfiting ways. “Holiday” can expect all-inclusive bookings on the festival circuit; distributors, however, may have reservations.
The club of contemporary cinematic provocateurs to whose brand of formalism “Holiday” is likeliest to prompt comparisons — Ulrich Seidl, Michael Haneke, even Gaspar Noé — is an awfully male-dominated one, and one senses that hegemony is not far from Eklöf’s mind in her gutsy first feature. Perhaps not since Julia Leigh’s undervalued “Sleeping Beauty” has a distaff auteur film so brazenly tested the limits of how women’s bodies may be used and abused on screen, muddling empathy with exploitation in one pristinely composed shot after another.
Over the course of 90 minutes, young protagonist Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) is assaulted in so many ways — from an echoing strike across the face in the opening minutes to extended vaginal rape later on — under the camera’s calm eye that “Holiday” risks becoming a passive exercise in extremity alone. Or is Eklöf acerbically daring the viewer to grow numb to these horrors? Working from a script lean on dialogue and shorter still on access to its characters’ inner lives, the director keeps her options open.
At the outset, in a darkened, claustrophobic tableau, Sascha is shown engaged in a manic, thrashing solo dance number of sorts — a physical routine that feels already cathartic, a release from restrictions we haven’t yet come close to grasping. At no subsequent point will she seem quite so in possession of her own physical person: Decked out for much of the film in a series of expensive, exposing swimsuits and glinting accessories, her body language forever self-aware and pose-driven, she appears to be presented throughout for perusal and pawing by the men who surround her. Well, one in particular: middle-aged, milky-eyed crime boss Michael (Lai Yde), whose underworld crew she joins for a hedonistic vacation at a luxury seaside villa on Turkey’s Aegean coastline.
A man not so much drunk on power as soberly expectant of it, Michael thinks nothing of hitting Sascha for minor infractions or sexually fondling her while she’s unconscious, nor of delegating such dominance to others: When she discloses to one of his lackeys that she has dipped into Michael’s funds, the stinging slap she gets proves early on that she has no allies in her boyfriend’s world. So when she encounters genial, blokishly handsome Dutch yacht owner Tomas (Thijs Römer) by chance, the flirty frisson that sparks between them seems a veritable lifeline.
The loveless love triangle that develops between these three privileged ciphers drives the plot-light proceedings: Tomas’s corner of it looks gentler than Michael’s, but Sascha is ultimately just toying with one alpha-male owner over another. Eklöf and co-writer Johanne Algren have conceived her as a character almost defiantly without agency, perversely drawn to the lack of adult responsibility that comes with an absence of power. “Holiday” tacitly invites viewers to consider whether she’s purely a victim or masochistically complicit in her own debasement.
Yet the stakes shift somewhat after that galling, aforementioned rape scene, during which Michael brutally commandeers her body on the living room floor in broad daylight. Captured in unblinking long shot by cinematographer Nadim Carlsen — not from a respectable distance but a disempowering one — it’s a horrible, stomach-tightening, film-galvanizing turning point, at which our impenetrable heroine’s lack of control seems, for the first time, to take her off guard. What ensues isn’t the feminist revenge tale you might expect at this juncture, though it seems the male violence used against her will be reappropriated.
How much the film wants or expects its audience to empathize with Sascha is ambiguous, with Sonne’s skilfully pinched performance itself taking no sides: Where viewers land on this china-brittle character will guide their response to the question of whether “Holiday” degrades her any less than her male oppressors do. Either way, it’s a cool, hard trip, icy in the fullest glare of the afternoon sun, in which even the pallid, expensively tacky interior of the villa — hats off to production designer Josephine Farsø — invites tension and judgment. We’ll be hearing more of Eklöf after “Holiday” completes its sure-to-be-contentious festival tour: She has the provocateur’s gift for images that needle, nettle and stick, well before their message locks firmly into place.