The selfie mode has two faces in “Sweat,” a hard, glistening study of life on the hamster wheel of Instagram celebrity, in which influence and inconsequence aren’t quite the opposites they seem. Swedish writer-director Magnus van Horn’s aggressively accomplished sophomore feature takes as its subject an outwardly easy target for satirical character study — young, sexy, relentlessly self-promoting Polish fitness guru Sylwia, who has approximately 600,000 followers and precisely zero friends — and follows her across a draining three-day whirl of professional engagements, personal crises and social media updates that fall somewhere in between. At first, the result yields the exact damning insights you’d expect from a portrait of this performative, image-oriented lifestyle, before some welcome conflict seeps in via Magdalena Koleśnik’s tricky, tightrope-walking tour de force in the lead.
Arriving five years after von Horn’s debut “The Here After,” a solemn troubled-youth study that made a strong impression in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, “Sweat” demonstrates considerable formal progress from that already auspicious calling card — though the screen is awash in the hot synthetic neons of modern gym gear, the filmmaking throughout is cold and sharp and clear as an ice cube. One can only speculate as to what waves “Sweat” might have made at Cannes had it premiered — as planned — in the festival’s official selection earlier this year, though the film’s virtual festival impact has been sufficient to net it widespread global distribution, including a Stateside deal with Mubi in 2021.
Though van Horn’s debut was set and shot in his homeland, “Sweat” sees the Swede shifting locale to co-producing nation Poland. The fluency with which the film navigates its mostly privileged corner of contemporary Warsaw underlines at least one of its tacit thematic points: that the Instagram realm Sylwia inhabits is a culturally flattened space. Only her native language distinguishes her brand, with its self-help rhetoric and clean millennial aesthetics, from those of countless influencers across the globe: To swipe through her selfies alone, she could as easily be in Los Angeles or London. Aptly enough, we first encounter her leading an intensive demonstration workout in the forecourt of an anonymously glossy mall, global retail logos speckling the screen behind the restless blur of her high. bobbing blonde ponytail and candy-pink leotard.
Permanently grinning, shouting canned motivational slogans and maintaining winking chemistry with her fitness partner Klaudiusz (Julian Świeżewski, excellent), 30-year-old Sylwia comes across as a near-inhuman torrent of energy and positivity. That’s how her colleagues and sponsors like it; they’re less pleased when, on a distinctly off-brand impulse, she posts a tearily confessional video admitting the loneliness and insecurity she feels over still being single. Whether this depressive diversion is a rare moment of unvarnished candor, or as virally calculated and performed as the rest of her public life, is an ambiguity that van Horn’s cool screenplay holds teasingly aloft.
Either way, the mini-backlash it triggers seems to set Sylwia off her fearsomely poised game. The next few days — building up to a much-anticipated TV appearance on a national morning show — bring a series of subtly entwined encounters that don’t play out exactly as they should, prodding her to take a harder, ringlight-free look at herself. At her mother’s birthday party, she’s piqued when relatives don’t seem quite as dazzled by her generous presence as she had hoped, while an awkward catch-up with a former classmate pits her shallow self-pity against genuine misfortune, to deeply unflattering effect. Most unsettlingly of all, she finds she has a stalker: Even then, however, the victim-aggressor dynamics of the situation take a disorienting turn.
With her eerily flawless image and pathological narcissism, it would be all too easy to make Sylwia a monstrous figure of fun — yet the more circumstances turn against her, the more nuance and moral curiosity von Horn and Koleśnik find beneath her hyper-contoured surface. “Sweat” isn’t a pat redemption narrative, either: Self-awareness is perhaps the endgame here, as the film probes just how many steps removed that is from self-orientation. A stage actor seizing her first film lead with both crisply manicured hands, Koleśnik has evident fun enacting the vapidity and manic physicality of Sylwia’s public persona, without tilting into caricature: The performance is most remarkable in its fine, near-seamless transitions from cultivated personal melodrama to painfully felt emotion.
From the glassy, taunting synths of Piotr Kurek’s score to the fluid restlessness of Agnieszka Glińska’s editing to the stainless, cruelly bright surfaces of Jagna Dobesz’s production design, every formal element here collaborates in the construction and slow disintegration of Sylwia’s exhaustively curated lifestyle. Alternately serene and jittery, Michał Dymek’s superb camerawork preys on her shifting states of mind, sometimes tracking her like a doting, phone-carrying fan, and sometimes trapping her like a specimen in a rose-gold petri dish. One of the film’s most haunting moments is an early, throwaway one, as Sylwia is captured singing along to Roxette’s appropriately themed ’80s banger “The Look” while driving: “I love this song! I love Roxette!” she enthuses, though nobody appears to be in the car with her. Is she talking to herself, or to her Insta-admirers? Either way, she’s always palpably being watched by somebody, even if it’s just us.