Review by Bob Freville
An official selection at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday tells the story of Sascha, the goomah of a small-time drug lord. When we first meet Sascha, she is walking through an all-white airport, the noisy footfalls of her hot pink peep toe slingbacks a cacophony that seems to announce her very loud presence.
A sign hanging from the rafters reads “Welcome to Bodrum,” but it might as well read, “Introducing Sascha” as her long blonde hair and form-fitting clothes match the volume of her footwear and make it clear that she has arrived. At least that’s what the young trophy girlfriend seems to think as she struts with all of the confidence of a seasoned runway model.
That this confidence will be swiftly taken from her may be the point of the film, a slow burn chiller that is unlike anything you are likely to see in multiplexes this year.
Holiday‘s plot concerns what happens when Sascha finds herself at an intersection of opulence and anguish along the Turquoise Coast. After emerging from the airport, we see Sascha on a bus traveling through the port city of Bodrum.
Her glimpse of a sullen young woman sitting alone in a deck chair with nothing but desolate road on either side of her should be an ominous omen…if only perception was that cut and dry.
It should be said up front that this is not your typical thriller. From the opening titles, rendered in hot pink like Sascha’s peep toe wedges, to their accompanying display of a woman undulating in white undergarments, it is obvious from the outset that we are watching an auteur film. That is to say, this is less Turistas and more Knife in the Water.
A subtle theme of religious upheaval runs through Holiday; after the distributor (Breaking Glass Pictures)’ logo has vanished at the head of the flick, another company logo appears, this one for something called Heretic Outreach. This is peculiar in and of itself, but then we have the foreboding and distorted cover of the African-American spiritual “Sinnerman” which drives the opening titles sequence.
Before we can meditate on any of this, Sascha is smacked around by a serious man who works for her boyfriend, the significantly older Michael. It seems that Sascha is here to deliver $30,000 Euros, but she’s made the mistake of spending 300 of it during her journey.
Before the gravity of her situation can fully sink in, Sascha has been dumped into the waiting arms of her lecherous beau and he has fucked her, taken her on a joyride and showered her with the sort of bling befitting a “true princess.”
Holiday drops us into a candy-colored world of ice cream and potential pederasts, a world where so-called gentlemen size barely legal girls up like they’re cheesecake and talk to them like they’re idiots. If the presence of the song “Sinnerman” has any particular meaning here then the only sin we can divine is Sascha’s naivete. Indeed, her real crime is being innocent enough to think that men are pure of intention.
It’s not just Sascha either. Her friends are equally taken with Michael after arriving at his villa for a champagne-fueled vacation, and they all seem oblivious to exactly what it is that he does. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
When Michael is not peddling his poisonous wares, he is objectifying women. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. In a particularly discomfiting scene, Sascha has blacked out from excessive drinking and we are forced to watch as Michael pulls up her skirt, grabs handfuls of her ass and then delicately arranges her limbs however he pleases. He does this with the meticulous decisiveness one would apply to sussing out the ripest fruit or vegetable.
When he rolls her onto her stomach and spreads her legs apart, he smiles and squeezes his cock through his slacks. We cringe. He walks to the foot of the bed and gazes down at her, fondling himself some more. We wretch. It’s all we can do because the camera is not going anywhere. This scene is one long take, a single static shot that gives us no choice but to play voyeur.
As Michael continues to manipulate Sascha’s limbs, his hand mercifully falls away from his crotch…or maybe it falls not so mercifully as its removal means there’s one more hand clutching Sascha’s unconscious form.
From here the smile fades from Michael’s face and the act of groping becomes less about arousal and more about power. Like any low-life rapist, Michael is not turned on by women so much as the control he has over them. Whether or not Michael violates Sascha any further (we are thankfully spared anything more than this over-the-clothes manipulation) the impetus for it is the same—this isn’t about carnal appetite but man’s need for power and property.
When one thinks of the power dynamic between on-screen criminals and their women, it is impossible not to think of Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) in Scorsese’s GoodFellas or Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) on David Chase’s The Sopranos. Both of those characters were guilty of both innocence and complicity, and we see early on a similar mixture in young Sascha.
After she awakes from her bender, she overhears Michael talking to his colleague about a suspicious transaction that would involve the moving around of more than 3 million Euros, much of it coming from the mysterious “white account.” The squinty, brow-furrowing expression on her face is largely unreadable, but it definitely suggests some level of incredulity. Did I just hear that right? What could this mean? That sort of thing.
Sascha’s error is in abandoning this possible train of thought immediately. Next thing we know, we’re at a restaurant with her dumb tourist friends and talk has turned to whether or not sea bass taste like cod. When the younger members of her group verbally spar, it is the boys who have the last word.
One of them says to his younger sister, “Karsten, are you on your period? Do you need to change your tampon?” This shuts her down for good by trivializing the pain that women experience and reducing them to a lesser and more vulnerable sex.
To say that this film is very much a part of its time (the era of #MeToo and the presidential pussy grabbing age) would be to miss the boat entirely. This film would have been as relevant to the female plight thirty years ago as it is right now. But the fact that it is so soberly directed by a woman is something of import.
Females have long been a minority in the field of motion picture directing. When they are afforded the opportunity to do so in America, they are often maligned by male artists. For instance, post-modern novelist and pop culture critic Bret Easton Ellis notoriously shit-talked Kathryn Bigelow and her film The Hurt Locker, even going so far as to say that women aren’t fit to be filmmakers because they lack “the male gaze.”
Despite the fact that women have helmed some of the most groundbreaking pictures in world cinema history (see: Maya Deren, Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Shirley Clarke, Sara Driver, the Soska Sisters, Marina de Van and the list goes on), it is rare to see them in the director’s chair for American productions.
Holiday is not an American film, it’s a Danish film featuring English-speaking characters of Danish and Dutch origin. But it is being released Stateside by Breaking Glass Pictures, the people behind 2017’s superlative Israeli drama Scaffolding. This is great news for fans of auteur filmmaking and great news for American women.
Indeed, all women should see this dangerous portrait of placid and passive femininity. Lest they one day find themselves in the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus with the other arm candy guilty of willful ignorance.