Tuesday 20 November 2018

Holiday (Isabella Eklöf, 2018)

Dutch actor Thijs Römer gives a strong performance in Holiday, a film in which title and content are completely at odds with one another; while it may be set in a seemingly cheerful sun-kissed location (see the above picture for an example), Isabella Eklöf's debut makes for a horribly uncomfortable watch.  Well-acted and impeccably shot in an icy style which conspicuously recalls the work of severe Austrian auteurs Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, Holiday is, quite predictably, a film much easier to admire than it is to like.  For something set exclusively in a balmy climate, it's probably the most chilling film of the year, and the warmth of its depicted beaches and marinas evaporates long before it can reach the viewer.  At the screening I attended, the director introduced the film and said she'd experienced many extreme reactions - some have embraced the film, others have detested it; regardless of where you stand on Holiday at its bleak conclusion, chances are that the film will stay with you for some time after the end credits roll.

While enjoying a holiday on the Turkish Riviera, Römer's Thomas gets chatting to fellow tourist Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne).  During their initial, mildly flirtatious encounter in an ice cream shop, you'd think that these two were just ordinary people living normal lives, but while Thomas is certainly a regular guy - and a bit of a dreamer, having packed in his job to buy a yacht - Sascha is part of a vicious criminal gang headed by the noxious Michael (Lai Yde).  An early marker for who we're dealing with here comes in the form of an incident on the beach, in which a Francophone tourist is humiliated and ridiculed simply for asking Michael and Sascha's group to turn their music down.  This is one of the more innocuous events in the film; Michael's objectification of everyone is spelled out in an unnerving scene in which he repositions the limbs of the seemingly sleeping Sascha, thus quite literally treating her like a doll.  As Sascha spends a bit more time with Thomas, it appears as if this affable character might just be Sascha's route out of the life she's trapped in; indeed, in most other films, the romance would blossom and Sascha would escape the vile crime boss - but Eklöf has other ideas and no intention of delivering anything so feelgood.  The outcome provokes feelings not dissimilar to those stirred up by Michael Haneke's Funny Games (either version), and you do sense that Haneke would approve of Eklöf's confrontational film.

It's very hard to review Holiday and ignore the elephant in the room - but that's precisely what I'll try to do here (even though I'm aware I've just alerted you to said elephant).  But suffice to say that I didn't appreciate someone taking the stage, pre-film, to issue a warning about some of Holiday's content - if Isabelle Eklöf wanted such a notice, wouldn't she have incorporated one into her film, à la William Castle/Gaspar Noé? (Irréversible, still that most shocking of Noé's works, is clearly another influence on Holiday).  Such an announcement, while no doubt borne of sound intentions, was a terrible distraction from Eklöf's immaculately-assembled work, and the effect was most reductive.  But while Holiday has many impressive aspects, it's ultimately a tough film to recommend, and a strong nerve is required to get through its 90 minutes or so.  If you are interested in seeing the film, you may want to do a little more reading up on it to see if it's for you; furthermore, the content raises real questions regarding acting boundaries.  With its ironic title and rather misleading publicity stills, Holiday is certainly one to approach with caution, but it will be interesting to see what Isabella Eklöf comes up with next.

Darren Arnold

Images: image.net