'Sweat': Film Review

Courtesy of Lava Films Publicity
Portrait of a social media influencer.

A celebrity fitness motivator has a moment of self-reckoning in Magnus von Horn’s Polish-Swedish coprod given the Cannes 2020 label.

A bright and shiny character-driven drama that begins as another send-up of social media madness, Sweat at some point turns a dark, unexpected corner. Ultimately, writer-director Magnus von Horn allows that there may be some personal redemption for his heroine, a self-obsessed fitness star and influencer played with breathless muscle-flexing and almost comic self-confidence by stage thesp Magdalena Kolesnik. Her portrait of an Instagram star is so universally recognizable, it makes you forget the story is set in Poland.

The film marks a welcome step forward for the Swedish filmmaker, whose somber debut feature about a juvenile delinquent, The Here After, bowed in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2015. Sweat is on the other side of the spectrum, a bouncy, happy-talk drama, filmed in the bright colors of youthful success and ego. The film’s lively and slightly surreal subject, engaging central performance and the Cannes 2020 label of quality should help push it toward art film prominence.

In a dynamic opener, we meet Sylwie leading a big workout class in a Warsaw shopping mall in a pink leotard and long blonde ponytail, surrounded by hysterical fans trying to imitate her mighty squats and lunges. Shot with a dizzying hand-held camera that mimics her unleashed energy, the scene ends in inevitable selfies with her fans. Sylwie, as it soon becomes clear, is an astute manipulator of her own image on social media and an influencer with 600,000 Instagram followers. Every moment of her life is dedicated to posting her big and small feelings on that great bulletin board in the sky.

But she’s also an emotional woman. Instead of bravely hiding her loneliness (no boyfriend, so sad!) and vulnerability, as her sponsor wants, she feels self-confident enough to risk not appearing perfect in every video. And as her agent mentions, a post of her in the midst of a crying jag has gone viral, which can't be bad.

All of this is amusing enough to watch, including a classic, hard-drinking family get-together in her mother’s undersized apartment. Sylwie picks up a new TV as a birthday present for mom along with the latest issue of a woman’s health mag, with herself on the cover. But her frantic attempts to steal the show at the BD party are not all that successful and she storms off to a bedroom to eat health food, until a wise uncle (Zbigniew Zamachowski, a veteran from Krzysztof Kieslowski and Andrzej Wajda fims) talks some sense into her.

Accompanied at work by fitness partner Klaudiusz (Julian Swiezewski) and everywhere by her cute dog Jackson, Sylwie has only two upsetting problems, both of which von Horn’s balanced screenplay gently mocks. One is her lack of any romantic life whatsoever: Despite looking like a million in a nightclub scene, her aura of self-centeredness seems to keep men at a distance. The other is whether or not she’ll be invited on national Breakfast TV to strut her stuff and win new followers.

Love her or hate her, she has to be admired for her back-breaking work at self-improvement and self-promotion. The sudden appearance of a grimy, half-mad stalker in her glittery life gives the one-track story a much-needed jolt of reality and seriousness. True to form, Sylwie handles it pretty badly, but then turns potential tragedy around into another bout of exhilarating exhibitionism.

In her first leading role, Kolesnik is as irresistible as an energy bar, exploring the Insta-queen’s shallow depths with cunning sincerity. Rather inevitably, she overshadows the rest of the pro cast.

Backing up Michal Dymek’s glitzy, wide-awake cinematography is a rocking score from Pietro Kurek. Editor Agnieszka Glinska expertly transitions between moods with the abruptness of flicking between posts.

Production companies: Lava Film in coproduction with Zentropa Sweden, Film i Vast, EC1 Lodz – The City of Culture, CANAL +, Dl Factory, opus Film, Cinema Defacto
Cast: Magdalena Kolesnik, Julian Swiezewski, Aleksandra Konieczna, Zbigniew Zamachowski
Director, screenwriter: Magnus von Horn
Producer: Mariusz Wlodarski
Co-producers: Lizette Jonjic, Peter Possne, Blazej Moder, Monika Glowacka, Anna Limbach-Uryn, Malgorzata Jurczak, Jakub Szurmiej, Rafal Golis, Jedrzej Sablinski, Piotr Dzieciol
Associate producers: Sophie Erbs, Tom Dercourt
Director of photography: Michal Dymek
Production designer: Jagna Dobesz
Costume designer: Malgorzata Fudala
Editor: Agnieszka Glinska
Music: Piotr Kurek
Casting: Milosz Karbownik, Dawid Bodzak
World sales: New Europe Film Sales 
Venue: Official Cannes Selection 2020
105 minutes