'Holiday' Review: Director Isabella Eklöf Addresses The Stigmatization Of Sexual Assault Through A Highly Stylized Lens [Fantastic Fest]

"She secretly likes the attention." "If she didn't want it, why would she dress that way?" "She should have known this would happen." "Why won't she just leave?" You don't have to be a female to hear these kinds of statements and questions. Although, if you identify as a female, you probably hear them often. The mentality behind systemic rape culture and victim blaming is a dizzying conversation that is slowly but surely coming into focus both in the news and in art. While stories of trauma and abuse can be displayed through a dark, dingy lens, Danish writer-director Isabella Eklöf addresses these horrors with a brightly stylish world of violence and luxury in her new film, Holiday.

Set in the beautiful Turkish Riviera, the story follows Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), a young attractive woman visiting Michael (Lai Yde), an older crime boss who dotes on her with lavish gifts. Staying in a modern home with gorgeous seaside views, nights are spent partying with friends and days are passed lounging by the tranquil pool or taking adventurous car rides through the hills.

While standing in line at an ice cream shop, Sascha engages in a flirtatious conversation sparked by a Dutch traveler by the name of Tomas (Thijs Römer), a scruffy optimist who recently quit his job to buy a boat that he keeps docked at the nearby port. Throughout the film, Sascha wanders off to meet Tomas who later witnesses the harmful treatment she experiences and tries to help her despite an increasing frustration with her decisions. Seeing Tomas as a threat to his prized possession, a fire of jealousy ignites within Michael leading him to quickly establish his control over Sascha emotionally, physically, and sexually. It's this sort of objectification that mutates throughout the film as power fluctuates within each character given their environment and frame of mind in a single moment. While the plot is quite simplistic, the captivating narrative resides within Sascha and her interactions with those around her. This is Sascha's story and Eklöf gives audiences a glimpse into how abuse shapes her in a manner that appears commonplace, while she possesses a dormant rage on the verge of breaking free.

The primary discussion around Holiday will most likely be its graphic rape scene. Before the film played at Fantastic Fest, a programmer addressed the audience stating the scene has been compared to the assault in Irréversible; and while she does not believe in trigger warnings, she does believe in self-care. With that said, she advised anyone who may be rattled to perhaps not view the film, despite its message being one of weighted importance. So, consider this statement a loving extension of said self-care, because this film may not be a good fit for some viewers at this moment, or ever at all.

However, as disturbing as that scene is to watch, I have to appreciate the director and fellow female writer, Johanne Algren, for their bravery in showing it because they convey a type of assault that is not regularly addressed on film. The shot of someone walking down the stairs to see what is happening and then quickly exiting without revealing their face or extending help is an apt metaphor for how rape is usually addressed in society. Historically, it's easier for people to avoid or pretend it never happened than to intervene.

Holiday Review

Additionally, the writers speak to the notion that because sex has been consensual in the past, use of force is not actually considered rape. An example would be the ignorant and deeply false belief that it isn't rape if a husband forces himself upon his wife. The director spotlights the abuse that society (both high and low) covers up at a dinner party, the bruises layered with makeup, the tears hidden behind fake smiles, and the nightmares suppressed with substances as a means of distraction. Holiday explores the complex difficulties of how and why women sometimes go back to their abusers within a society littered with powerful, corrupted men. It successfully captures and creatively shocks by using just one of the innumerable stories of abuse. Another heartbreaking scene shows Sascha walking into the police station; but after standing there quietly, decides to turn around and leave. It's a powerful moment that emphasizes the efforts women go to in order to disclose their trauma, yet often receive the sobering realization that they won't be believed, and instead blamed for their circumstances.

To contrast the dismal reality of danger, cinematographer Nadim Carlsen utilizes light and color in a manner reminiscent of the glossy pages of a high fashion magazine, while costume designer Sascha Valbjørn dresses the cast in both casual and formal attire– a subtle message within the wardrobe that abuse affects all ages and social classes. The outfit choices stylized for Sascha convey the grooming power Michael has over her while also showcasing her affection for the finer things in life as she regularly admires herself in the mirror, reflecting upon the power of her beauty.

The film's use of tension aptly captures everyday life experiences for women where commonplace situations can quickly turn threatening. Multiple scenes in the film present opportune instances where Sascha could be in harm's way since a majority of the background characters are men. There's an aura of lurking predatory nature that establishes a tone of dread; and when it is not delivered, a cathartic sense of relief is exhumed. Yet, this is all done subtly which emanates an atmospheric element to systemic rape culture.

And Sonne's performance is increasingly impressive with each passing minute. Her ability to perform a range of emotions in a subdued manner while frequently maintaining a reserved sense of control is a testament to her range of talent. Her fearlessness for performing one of the most graphic scenes of sexual assault on camera is worthy of applause.

Sascha's character is complex and her naive interactions are frustrating at times, but also possess an obscurity as to how innocent she truly is. The narrative does not conform to typical abusive plot points or structures such as applying flashbacks for an explanation to her reactions. This choice to deviate from the norm is part of the suspense and ultimately supplies a refreshing turn of events. A survival story at its core, the harrowing undertones feed into the protagonist's strengths as she learns how to adapt within her abusive environment. In one scene, Michael states "suffering makes the world go round". While it may be impossible to eradicate, manners in which suffering is boldly addressed can serve as a healing method to significantly reduce it by bringing stories of pain to light, which is exactly where Holiday ultimately succeeds. Hidden within its brightly polished and gorgeous cinematography, Holiday explores the dismal complexities of systemic rape culture. A jarring but important film, it's a nearly flawless example of female filmmakers creating stories about and for their sisters of survival.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10