“Holiday” is already unsettling in its portrait of a young woman trapped by a cruel overlord, and then it arrives at a brutal, graphic rape scene more alarming than anything comparable in world cinema since “Irreversible.” No matter the extreme disgust at the center of this scene and the devastating circumstances surrounding it, Danish writer-director Isabella Eklof’s debut never feels like an empty provocation. This astonishing first feature depicts a world of superficial pleasures with such precision that even the people trapped in its confines can’t deny its appeal.
For Sacha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), being arm candy for slick gangster Michael (Lai Yde) yields a life of constant leisure, but only if she behaves like his prized possession. An early scene establishes the cruel possibilities at hand if she acts out of line — overdrawing on his bank account and confessing to one of his minions, she’s met with more than one cruel slap. It’s a shocking reality check at odds with the movie’s bright, colorful cinematography and gorgeous seaside imagery, setting the stage for a powerful contradiction at the movie’s brilliant core.
Sacha spends the bulk of “Holiday” roaming around a luxury villa in Turkey, serving as Michael’s object of lust when he calls for her and otherwise wasting away her days. It would be easy to view Sacha as a damsel in distress, but “Holiday” instead offers a more nuanced look at the young woman’s ambiguous allegiances, and a broader critique of consumerist desires. Eklof tracks Sacha’s world with a blend of quiet, thoughtful long takes, creating a slow-burn pace with meandering exchanges punctuated by sudden bursts of violence. The movie balances its weighty ideas with the tender emotions of a young woman incapable, or perhaps disinterested, in correcting the harsh extremes of her servitude.
That paradox sits at the center of the conflict that comes to complicate Sacha’s life. Waiting in line for ice cream, she meets brawny Dutch traveler Thomas (Thijs Romer) and casually encourages his advances; perhaps out of boredom or loneliness, she continues to flirt with him when she spots him again at a local restaurant. A smiling nomad who travels the world on his yacht, Thomas represents a carefree escape from the restrictive life she leads with Michael, though she never acknowledges as much.
Telling Thomas nothing of Michael, she begins an after-hours courtship that, considering the eerie undertones of her Sacha’s world, can’t possibly end well. Yet even as that possibility lurks, there’s a warm romanticism to Sascha and Thomas’ scenes together that strikes a notable contrast with the repression she endures at the villa with Michael, and Eklof uses it toy with audience expectations with a remarkable grasp on her narrative intentions.
Which brings us to that rape scene. Arriving well after the dynamic between Sascha and her oppressive partner has been established, it starts as a consensual encounter before transforming into something much more alarming, a vivid and terrible illustration of a domineering figure who treats everything within his grasp as an object he can abuse as he pleases. It’s an infuriating moment, one that dares viewers to look the other way, while weaving that very reaction into the nature of its critique. The urge to evade that discomfort illustrates the ease with which one can block out the harsh truth of a society corrupted by powerful men.
“Holiday” is a fearless work, anchored by Sonne’s bold, subtle performance, which keeps her motivation unclear until a burst of developments at the startling conclusion. However, it’s not a wholly original vision: Eklof clearly adores the intimate tableaus of Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl, whose movies often wrestle with the contradictions of a materialistic society where beauty and depravity often work in tandem. Eklof maps out Sascha’s world with despair and dark humor, as a thick current of social commentary courses beneath every tense moment. At times, the rhythm of certain scenes and the unsettling bursts of violence may as well have been directed by an algorithm designed to replicate Seidl’s aesthetic. Yet Eklof maintains a closer relationship to her central protagonist than the bulk of Seidl’s work, which tends to take a more abstract approach. Eklof scrutinizes Sascha so well that emotion emerges by merely understanding the circumstances of her lush and expansive prison of a life.
Sascha is a complex character whose actions don’t adhere to traditional story beats. Though Michael is the villain of the piece, he views himself as a paternal figure in Sacha’s life, dictating the rationale for keeping her as his prized possession. “Everything passes with time, and then we’re just dead,” he tells her, and her silent response suggests that she would rather accept that dictum than search for greater meaning. The movie eventually becomes a traumatic survival story in which victory comes not from escaping the boundaries of a corrupt world so much as learning to play by its rules.
“Holiday” premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.