Now that more women are venturing into and being granted more opportunities in filmmaking than ever before, one of the joys for cinephiles is seeing fresh female takes on previously masculine dominated genres. Is there any more macho genre than the gangster drama? The milieu Swedish writer/director Isabella Eklöfhas has chosen it for her feature debut, Holiday. In gangster movies, women have generally either been relegated to background eye candy at worst or Lady Macbeth figures at best. Eklöf takes a gangster’s moll and places her front and centre in this uncompromising and provocative character study.
In the sun-baked setting of a Turkish resort town arrives Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), a pretty young Danish girl who has found herself occupying the dual roles of drug mule and trophy girlfriend for gangster Michael (Lai Yde), who has brought his extended crime family for a trip that combines business with pleasure.
From a slap administered as punishment for “borrowing” a sum of money from the wad of cash she smuggled through Turkish customs, to the extended and graphic sexual assault that will likely constitute much of the dialogue around Eklöf’s confrontational debut, Sascha endures a myriad of physical and psychological abuses from her boss. ‘Endure’ is the key word, as though every time she receives a smack she reacts as though momentarily caught off guard, she quickly composes herself and returns to her business as though having been merely pricked by a thorn. What’s most disturbing about Holiday is how its protagonist has accepted this life for herself, willing to trade her agency for the “glamorous” lifestyle afforded by such submission. What life must she be escaping from?
Eklöf forces us to watch as her heroine makes a series of bad decisions. When Sacha ignores a local man’s warning that her trailing scarf is going to get caught up in the wheel of her rented moped, Eklöf cuts to the aftermath of a crash, and it’s clear that Sacha is every parent’s nightmare, one of those young women who go out of their way to ignore the advice of those looking out for her.
The worst choice Sacha makes is in engaging the attention of handsome Dutch wannabe lothario Tomas (Thijs Römer), igniting a jealous rage in Michael. In two lengthy scenes late on, Eklöf mines unbearable tension from Michael’s use of Sacha as a pawn in his power game with his younger love rival. Yet Eklöf doesn’t make things as black and white as positing Tomas as Sacha’s potential saviour; rather we grow to view him as merely a cowardly version of Michael, who at least is honest in his intentions towards Sacha. You get the sense that this a movie made by a woman who views “nice guys” with a healthy dose of suspicion.
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Much like Clint Eastwood’s story of an unlikely drug runner, The Mule, Holiday is essentially a workplace drama decked out in genre scrubs. It has much to say about the power dynamic between employers and employees, and the abuse so many workers are willing to accept simply because they aren’t willing to walk away from the lifestyle their wages have accustomed them to. Like Eastwood’s drug mule, Sacha finds her physical appearance a useful tool to get by in a society where the odds are increasingly stacked against her. We meet Sacha first as a timid, vacuous airhead, but by the end of this striking film, we realize we’ve just witnessed the origin story of a super-villainess.
Holiday - 4 1/2 stars out of 5
Directed by: Isabella Eklöf; Starring:Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde, Thijs Römer