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It’s a (Wo)man’s World: Close-Up on Isabella Eklöf’s "Holiday"

A woman's vacation with gangsters at a Turkish resort reveals dark and complicated gender dynamics in Isabella Eklöf's feature debut.
Savina Petkova
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Isabella Eklöf's Holiday (2018), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from June 7 – July 6, 2019 in MUBI's Debuts series.
Holiday bites its teeth into male-female power dynamics and the blood is all glitter. Isabella Eklöf’s debut feature reprimands a static notion of masculine control, portraying a drug circle paired with a provocative example of female agency: a Danish criminal gang seen through the eyes of a woman. Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) arrives in Bodrum, at the glamorous Turkish Riviera, but the luxurious villa and expensive goods won’t save her from the group's misdemeanors and violence. Ironically enough, the title alludes to a joyous escapade, but in retrospect, it resonates with Michael Haneke’s title choice of Funny Games.
The film opens with an empty airport, its long, spotless corridors echoing the footsteps of Sascha, a dazzling blonde, whose high heels clank in rhythm—the only sound to vibrate in this shiny tomb. Her assertive gait is nothing short of a model catwalk, as she faces the camera and the static long shot invites her closer, the floor a flattering, glossy runway. Nevertheless, a wandering gaze gives away her disquiet, as do her shoes: throughout the film, she is never seen in stilettos, only in solid platform or massive heels that underline her strive for stability as well as the incertitude which governs her steps. While no backstory serves as foundation for her character, Sascha is the emotional backbone of the film. 
In fact, the film has two, equally important opening sequences. If the airport traverse introduces us to the main character’s exterior and insecurity, what follows is a symbolic representation of the repressed (rather than “oppressed”), tenebrous side of femininity. A deep black engulfs the frame, giving birth to a sensuous female body, sparsely dressed in white. The claustrophobic darkness is gradually filled with a sleek, velvety male voice which covers Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” While only a single spotlight shines on the body, the oozy melody channels a dance beginning as soft sways, and expands as a chthonic worship of corporeality and its earthly nature. While the dancer kneels down and crawls, her arms caressing herself and then the floor, her body is facing the static camera that captures what is fascinating about dance— its intermediary function between a body and its surroundings. Expressive, ecstatic motions pierce the air and interact with it in a way similar to how Sascha exists in the gangster circle: both in the dark, shaking and paralyzed at the same time by the body’s convulsive and contradictory desires. Womanhood as obscure, telluric, and irrational, this is what Holiday will tells us of.
Sascha is a single woman in a man’s world: she is welcomed to the “family” by alpha Michael (hard-line performance by Lai Yde) and his entourage, his ruthless driver who shows no hesitation to slap the girl’s face over their first encounter, and his ever-faithful subordinates, who exist in the drug-supplying chain even if they bring their wives and children to their boss's posh villa. In Holiday, men do not assume “boyfriend” or “father” roles, and the presence of women is kept segregated in separate rooms and controlled via material goods, pool parties, and, of course, drugs.  Men populate the screen and regulate the power dynamics of Holiday, even the “good guys.” The Dutchman Thomas (Thijs Romer) seems to be the only self-reflective character. Soon after Sascha befriends him at an ice cream shop, he is called in for an audience by Michael, the control center of all interactions. “I’ll never be this careless with my soul,” Thomas confesses, reflecting on a reckless lifestyle he used to indulge in. “Your soul? What do you mean?”, Michael responds, taken aback, his psychological impotence shining through with a domineering smirk. In the center of his phallocentric world, there is a soulless mesh of aggression and the denial of vulnerability. Rather than a reduction to toxic masculinity, the film discusses the role of strength and weakness in the interconnected male-female dynamics. The web of social life is woven through relationships and their power charge, but the true hegemony belongs to Sascha, who accepts her own vulnerability and submission in order to transgress and transcend it by the end of the film.  
Isabella Eklöf, in her deadpan portrayal of the film’s most seismic story events, is more interested in her characters’ emotional grey zones rather than their lack of moral judgement. By showcasing extreme machismo alongside a specific kind of naivety associated with young women, she concocts the ideal conditions to inspect that ethical in-between. Sascha is singled out as a slave to vanity by numerous shots of mirror reflections, her unquenchable thirst for jewelry and accessories, and preference for short dresses and cropped tops, all of the attributes to a “bimbo” type, accompanying the older, not so handsome but loaded, macho men. This director’s conscious effort to put her protagonist in such a box with an insulting and simplifying label carries a metatextual message and a certain degree of self-irony. It is in Sascha’s quiet presence, unblinking stare, and stumbling walk: the impenetrable image of a woman, product of the male gaze. 
In its estranged distance from the camera and its icy blue-green color palette, the film offers a coherent and chilling representation of a world tied down by the crippling hierarchy of power structures in the absence of morals. The narrative itself expands on how their transactional nature and violence abolishes all ethical nuances in human relationships. Nadim Carlsen’s camera (who also did an exquisite job with Ali Abbasi’s Border) is unflinching and keeps its distance in composing tableaux of long shots, yet all the details of the off-screen space flash like red signal lights. Scarlet bruises on a man’s knuckles, Sascha’s bloody knees: they do not get the attention of close-ups. Wounded flesh, rather than conversation, seems the only aftermath of violence, while the Danish happily drink up and sing heart-warming karaoke songs, evidently enjoying holiday life.  
The cinematography composes characters in the periphery of exterior images, suggestive of unhealable loneliness, while in interiors, it makes use of deep focus to imbue the villa’s architecture with the damp of trauma. The static and distant long takes speak in the cinematic language of Haneke, Lars von Trier, and Ulrich Seidl, all of them quoted by Eklöf as storytelling inspirations, but the actual chills stem from the strong contrast of strict order, cleanliness, and light in the house, with the repulsive act of abuse. The rape scene which called out for a trigger warning before the film’s screenings raises the stakes for spectator tolerance even in a time post the scandalous New French Extremity (named so by critic James Quandt). The undoubtedly non-consensual sex between Michael and Sascha stirred up debates over its fine line between real and represented. And even if this has been played out and traumatically lived through in cases such as Gaspard Noé’s Irreversible, or more recently Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, it seems (visually) indigestible. Moreover, potential accusations of misogyny lurk around the corner: why would a director be willing to represent rape on screen at all? In fact, Holiday takes a stance for the absolute need of representation of such difficult matters by portraying the assault in broad daylight, framed between the emotional spectrum of reconciliation caresses and total indifference post-coitus.
In fact, all the film’s monstrosity spans out in sunlight or in coldly lit interiors, which testifies against the alarming assumption that all violence happens in dark alleys or in seclusion. More often, abuse and rape occur in daily life, while people decide to look away, or walk away, such as the hesitant witness in Holiday, whose shoe soles we glimpse at as he exits swiftly. An apt metaphor for social paralysis and queasy spectatorship, this figure could be more condemned than the perpetrator himself. Eklöf is calling us out on both our apathy and our overly sensitive viewing habits. Rearranging the paradigm of weakness and power, of oppression and repression, Holiday finds empowerment in its character’s most vulnerable state, as the film closes with Sascha’s impervious female gaze, refusing to give us many answers, but adamant to put the important questions on the table.


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