'Holiday': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A sexual and criminal shocker, destined to stir hot debate wherever it shows.

This Danish feature debut from Isabella Eklof centers on a gangster who takes his girlfriend on a lavish trip to Turkey, where things take a turn for the twisted.

Like a crafty predator, the Danish knock-out Holiday lays patiently in wait as long as it needs to — in this case nearly an hour — before stunning its prey, the spectator, with a shocking scene that catapults the film to a whole different level. This debut feature by Danish director Isabella Eklof knows very well what it’s doing, lulling the viewer with its depiction of a gangster’s extended clan on vacation in seaside Turkey on its way to boring down on the corrosive and contaminating essence of the criminal ethos.

An out-of-nowhere scene of very rough hardcore sex and violence will limit exposure in many markets, although if there was ever such a sequence that is essential to the theme and eventual dramatic trajectory of a film, this is it.

Arriving at an empty coastal airport, Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) has the look of what you might expect a modern hoodlum’s moll to be: expensively decked out but in a vulgar way, with less than a top-notch blond dye job and an attitude of disregard for anyone whose priorities are anything other than money and what it can buy. The suave mob driver who picks her up slaps her twice very hard for a financial transgression and warns her not to get out of line.

An ancient city on the Aegean coast, Bodrum has sights to see, but all top-dog mobster Michael (Lai Yde) cares about is the hotel, drink, drugs and being able to lord it over the extended family he’s magnanimously hosting; most of these people are never introduced and we have no idea who they actually are.

A couple of his young henchmen who step out of line are severely beaten for their transgression, but are soon welcomed back into the fold, their lessons learned. Michael, in his forties and very good-looking, keeps close tabs on his circle and his money, but mostly eats, drinks, gets high and relaxes around the pool.

However, Michael’s behavior toward Sascha is odd. He seems to like her and can act generously, but doesn’t always require her attention and allows her to go off on her own into town, where she meets a very handsome Dutchman, Thomas (Thijs Romer), whose yacht is tied up in the docks and who is clearly interested.

Given the assumption that Sascha is supposed to be Michael’s lady, at least for the moment, the mobster’s behavior toward her is quite strange. In the bedroom scenes, he caresses her, maneuvers her legs around into different formations after she’s passed out and slips into the sack with her, but at no point does it appear that they actually have sex.

For an almost dangerously extended period from a dramatic point of view, virtually nothing of consequence actually happens. The undifferentiated guests are all boring, gauche lowlifes with nothing to say and no interest in anything beyond unnecessary luxuries. They have no class, curiosity or conversation, and even the place where they’ve chosen to stay, while undoubtedly very expensive, is a bit cheap-looking.

Given that the film just presents all this tawdriness without trying to dig beneath the surface, and that no dramatic complexity has been developed, one begins to wonder what Holiday is going to amount to. Well, a great deal, as is turns out, and it’s directly due to the dramatic somnolence of the first half that what comes after hits with such blunt force.

At the 50-minute mark, the film goes deep and shocking. Hanging out on a couch, Michael begins to get a bit rough with Sascha. She doesn’t like it, but he slaps her and pushes her down onto the marble floor. He becomes even rougher as he gets turned on, leading to a fully explicit sex scene of exceedingly unsavory rough domination that involves forced intercourse as well as oral sex, culminating in a gesture of utter contempt and dismissal.

In and of itself, what’s shown so graphically is utterly disgusting and is meant to be. But it’s also the key to what Eklof and her screenwriter Johanne Algren are getting at — that in Michael’s view, total debasement is required to fully acquire the criminal mindset; to be a successful criminal, another human being’s life must be worth nothing. By violating Sascha to totality, he has brought her down to his own level, which means they’re equals now and may even have a bright future together now that they "understand" one another.

There is more to come, especially involving a slow-burn climax of considerable anxiety and suspense, but what ends up being especially brilliant about Holiday is how it essentially reveals the creation of a female Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s signature creation of a totally amoral man. If she cares to, there is much more Eklof could now do with the character of Sascha.

Is this a certain kind of twisted feminist empowerment statement? Is the vile sex scene simple exploitation or absolutely necessary to an understanding how and why Sascha behaves afterwards? All of this and more will be debated wherever the film winds up being seen. In the end, the director dares to let the viewer become impatient with her story’s lack of momentum and complexity for a good long while, only to cash in big time in the home stretch. It’s an exceptional feature debut.

Production company: Apparatus
Cast: Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde, Thijs Romer
Director: Isabella Eklof
Screenwriters: Isabella Eklof, Johanne Algren
Producer: David B. Sorensen
Director of photography: Nadim Carlsen
Production designer: Josephine Farso
Costume designer: Sascha Valbjorn
Editor: Olivia Neergaard-Holm
Music: Martin Dirkov
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)

90 minutes