There are some movie characters who take their time to cement themselves onscreen, but Sylwia Zajac (Magdalena Kolesnik), the celebrity workout instructor and social media fiend at the heart of “Sweat,” establishes herself in a matter of seconds. Speeding through a rapid-fire workout routine in the zippy opening sequence of director Magnus von Horn’s taut and emotional character study, Sylwia wears a frozen grin as she moves through an energetic physical routine for a boisterous crowd as the camera swoops around her. There’s an inherent sensuality to Sylwia’s breathless assemblage of planks and pushups, but the balletic display buries the essence of the person beneath the surface. Her face tells a different story, with wide eyes hinting at the anxious, fragile human she’s struggling to contain for the cameras. “Sweat” evaluates that struggle as it pushes Sylwia to a breaking point.
The most intense look at a social media-obsessed loner since “Eighth Grade,” Swedish director Von Horn’s Polish-language feature finds its character wrestling with the nature of her popularity, until she’s forced to confront the disconnect between her public and personal existence in vivid detail. A dazzling figure who thrives on sharing her beauty with the world, Sylwia has boxed herself into a superficial universe of her own design.
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Yet by the time the movie kicks off, that facade has already started to track. A perpetually single woman who relishes every opportunity to document herself online, Sylwia’s snazzy image has been challenged by a revealing social media post in which she confessed her isolated existence to the internet, providing a tabloid-ready scandal that puts the future of her bookings in question. None of that slows her down: Whether she’s walking her dog or digging through the various posh gift bags sent to her decadent apartment, Sylwia’s always keen on firing up her iPhone and providing an update for her fans. She’s addicted to living in public.
And some of that public is addicted to her. When a pervert shows up in the parking lot outside her house, only to submit a tearful video apology to her feed later on, Sylwia’s forced to reckon with the complex nature of her relationship to fame — she craves the anonymity of the attention she receives, but struggles to confront its real-world implications. That imbalance percolates throughout the movie with striking subtlety, as she encounters various people enamored of her routine and unafraid to objectify her in the process. (“I want your ass,” one giddy woman says to her at a shopping mall.)
Slywia’s struggles build toward a set of disturbing twists over the course of one evening that epitomize the two sides of her thorny existence. The night before her appearance on a national talk show to promote her latest workout video, she throws herself into an ebullient red carpet event, attempts to embrace the sexualization of her image, then recoils in horror when she takes it too far. The bloody twist of the third act strains credibility, but it provides the character with a riveting opportunity to indulge in a selfless act, and finds herself shellshocked by the prospects of genuine empathy.
“Sweat” peppers Sylwia’s world with a handful of intriguing figures, including a winning turn from Aleksandra Konieczna as the trainer’s crude, judgmental mother and Julian Sweizewski as the brawny fellow trainer who keeps undressing Sylwia with his eyes. But much of the movie operates as a staggering one-woman show, as cinematographer Michael Dymek’s camera stays close to the actress’ intense gaze as it gradually comes undone, until she figures out a way to button it up again. Kolesnik is such a magnetic screen presence it’s a wonder that this movie marks her first leading role; the character registers with such striking complexity that she singlehandedly elevates the movie above its rather straightforward narrative trajectory.
Her final assessment of her situation — “weak, pathetic people are the most beautiful” — arrives as a quiet act of rebellion against the expectations thrust on her by the outside world. Her transition, however, hovers in a fascinating state of ambiguity. Sylwia knows she risks losing everything by letting them in, and it remains unclear just how much she’s willing to relent until the very last moment. By then, we’re right there with her — and her fans — watching that face, searching for answers.
“Sweat” is part of the Cannes 2020 Official Selection. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.