Update of original review 26th Feb 2020 adding interview with Isabella Eklöf
The Mundanity of Hell
Like sunburn, Isabella Eklöf’s outstanding movie ‘Holiday’ (2018) left a lasting impression on us at FLUSH last year. It’s the slow seemingly innocent creep while having a good times trip, before you release you’ve been in the sun WAY too long, and now you’re in agony, and potentially scared for life.
That may not sound like a complement for watching a movie, but if you are a fan of beautiful, intelligent, progressive, challenging and fiercely honest story telling, there are few others in the league of what Isabella is, and clearly heading for, and the world is better place for it. This movie may feel like a plaster being ripped off, with half your skin, but sometimes healing can truly only begin when pain has been endured, and everyone deals with pain in different ways. Sometimes that pain is their norm.
There’s a full review below of the movie itself, but to celebrate the release of ‘Holiday’ on Blu-ray and VOD this week, FLUSH caught up with Isabella for a brief Q&A. In a world of such much untruths and deliberate misdirection, she is like a lighthouse of honesty, which wonderfully comes across in the answers and the excellent interviews that are extras on the disc. Given the recent conviction of multiple rapist Harvey Weinstein, there are great points made in the interviews (which were recorded before the trial result) about how society deals, or more importantly doesn’t deal with these attacks on women.
We can’t recommend the film enough, and what Isabella will do next.
Pick up a limited edition version of it (and other releases from the wonderful Anti-Worlds stable) at https://antiworldsreleasing.co.uk/collections/limited-editions
FLUSH Q&A with Isabella Eklöf
What were the inspirations (movies/directors/writers) and seeds of the movie? Thankfully not to the same dramatic extent, I knew or met girls like Sasha when I was growing up. Did you?
I am a girl like Sascha and so is my cowriter Johanne Algren. If by “like Sascha” you mean sacrificing personal integrity for excitement, a place to belong and a sense of being alive. Artistic inspirations are Ulrich Seidl, Michael Haneke, Harmony Korine, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Carlos Reygadas, Roy Andersson and Ruben Östlund.
What is your writing process like (daily routine/hours?) and how fluid did the story come out? It is deceptively simple, yet universal and timeless.
My process is playing computer games until a deadline comes up, and then frantically scrambling to get something on paper while asking myself why I don’t do this every day, because it’s so much fun and I’m so good at it.
How much detail do you go into in the script in regards instruction for actors, and was there any opportunity for rehearsals, or improvisation?
I think it’s vital to NOT write instructions for actors in any script, but to set them free through suggestion and getting to know and understand them and what they have to give.
There is beautiful corruption at play in regards setting it at a time when people have told/conditioned themselves to have fun, on a family holiday. How early was the location an integral part of the story.
Very early. The vacation provided the unity of space and time that gave us a framework to really start exploring the film’s themes and emotions.
The cinematography (& music) is incredibly beautiful, reminding me of Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn), Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer), yet mixed with the natural character interplay of Shane Meadows movies. Despite their ‘profession’ these are normal people on holidays, through the presentable prism of an Instagram filter (probably on a smashed & bloodied phone). Who, or what were the inspirations behind this approach? Despite it’s apparent gloss veneer, it looked exactly like the world (icecream shop) people have convinced themselves around the world that they currently live in.
See the above-mentioned directors. To whom I was drawn in the first place among other things for their exposé of the weak human flesh in a rigorous and merciless commercial machine.
Continuing the theme of shallowness, surface & presentation, the brutal, violent relationship between Sasha and Michael had an inherent honesty to me, whereas (as Michael says) Thomas is the one living the lie, unwilling to accept the harsh realities that make a fully rounded experience of life (good & bad). Despite what he pontificates from his boat, he isn’t growing, learning, adapting, whereas Sasha is.
I think he is. The point is that he is doing so from a point of such privilege that he really has no way to truly understand what powerlessness is.
There’s a fantastic, fearless and extremely admirable honesty to your work, such as in the brutality Sasha experiences, yet like the vast majority of women who have been violated in such ways in real life, have to pick themselves up and get on with everything, back to a ‘normal’. Despite these very powerful scenes that literally punch you, minutes later it’s like nothing happened in the characters world. What fuels your honesty to show this everyday reality?
Thank you. I don’t think I can answer why I want to be honest. Anything else would feel like cowardice.
Was there a moment when you were writing the story, or on set when you knew how effective & affective the film was going to be? The reception to it has been rightly of high praise.
Thanks again. No, there was and is, I think, no way to predict what hits home and what doesn’t.
Victoria gave a truly stunning performance, and again immediately reminded me of people I’ve known. The age gap with the character Michael also reminded me of an entire early era of ‘classic’ movies where the lead actor was in a relationship with someone who could have been their child. How soon into development was the age gap introduced, and what was the decision behind it, as it’s used to fantastic effect, as if Sasha is the all too eager apprentice. (I could also see Sasha eliminating Michael a few years later)
I didn’t want the age difference but Victoria was the only Danish actress who could carry the role.
The budget (presumably limited) was used to phenomenal effect throughout, how do you think having larger budgets will affect your future writing, directing or indeed the stories you want to tell?
Thanks! I think larger budgets allow even more precision and artistic freedom – much like in life.
You have an extremely refreshing voice in storytelling, what project(s) are you working on/developing next?
The most developed one is a film set in Greenland called “Kalak”, about a man trying to find himself in the Greenlandic culture while grippling with his own history of incest and battling sex and drug addictions.
Isabella Eklöf may not be a name that rolls off the tongue at the present moment, but that won’t be the case for much longer. Hailing from Sweden, she went on to study film in Denmark and has progressed from being a runner on the outstanding modern vampire tale Let the Right One In (2008), to co-writing the genre/boundary/taste bending and stunningly original dark fable that is Border (2018). Clearly and admirably at home dancing with the darkest of themes, walking the unventured paths like a true pioneer, or a prospector mining the deepest subconscious, willingly prepared to potentially unearth demons that have been buried for centuries.
Isabella has progressed to directing her first feature (which she also wrote) Holiday (2018), and though it is set on the sun bleached idyllic Riveria shores of Turkey, it is also some of her skilfully darkest and brutally assured work yet.
Sasha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) passes through the deserted airport arrivals seemingly like an innocent Bambi wandering the forest on it’s own. Slight in build, but with stride of something more, with a nymphet nonchalance she seems to be ignoring the world, but making sure the world isn’t ignoring her. She radiates a sort of vulnerability, that perfectly suits the necessities of her much older Danish gangster drug dealer boyfriend Michael (Lai Yde), ie being a mule bringing money through customs.
This frailty is further exposed when she makes a connection with a somewhat unsavoury ‘work’ associate prior to hooking up with her boyfriend/boss. There’s a suitably leisurely vacation, just chilling pace as we get to know her, the boyfriend and the extended family, friends, henchmen who are all staying in a villa that overlooks the ocean. The house clearly cost money, but given the behaviours and holiday wardrobe of everyone, there is the atmosphere of lottery winners on a holiday splash out.
The crass fashion mirrors some of the attitudes, where taste can’t be bought no matter how much money is thrown at it. And in such a raw world, things are taken rather than learned or nurtured.
Despite the beach towel veneer of a holiday, there is business going too, it’s just the drug smuggling meetings are alfresco, and any Wish You Were Here postcards being sent home will be liberally dusted in coke.
There is a beautiful monotony and normality to this foundation of character development, or actually erosion. Like the illicit shipments that Michael organises, there is a ruthless efficiency leering through his eyes as he oversees it all. It is the exact same look he has for Sasha, who he literally treats like a sex doll of a number of occasions with an ever increasing menace, contempt and aggression. To him she is another toy that are the extra benefits of the job.
Haplessly wandering, well more sailing into this crude world is a potential knight on shining yacht rigging Thomas (Thijs Römer) who naïvely strikes up a friendship with a gangsters moll. Thomas may have crossed the oceans, but his sails have been filled with dreams rather than adventures where he might have learned some street smarts.
Being that it has been written/directed by the wondrous darkness residing in Isabella’s head, this, of course, is not going to go well for somebody, but who?
The overall tone of the movie is part Neon Demon, the male gaze, objectifying women, mixed with the everyday rough ‘n ready approach of Shane Meadows. It explodes with the vibrant rich colours that were part of Neon Demon, with some stand out set pieces and music highly reminiscent of that movie again, but like the money, it is a mask for pestilence oozing underneath. It’s also not going to be that straight forward.
And that’s where this movie excels. Like how we all judge others when we go on holidays, we have placed our bias upon these characters, and given the signals we haven chosen to pick up throughout the movie, we have formed a belief about who they are. But maybe we need some street smarts too?
A seriously gorgeous looking movie, with a fabulous performance by Victoria, truly stunningly assured directing by Isabella that is only enhanced by her desire to erode our norms, this is brave, bold and VERY beautiful cinema. I have giggles and nervous shakes for where Isabella will take us next, as there’s no way we will be prepared for it, and that is exactly what we need. In the meantime she has given us a wonderful sun kissed dark cousin to this years incredible Midsommar (2019), where we will now be immediately defriending the Danish as well as the Swedes. Is this all part of some right-wing brexit master(race)plan? Of course not, but it’s equally horrific and messed up.
8/10 ‘Holiday’ is cinemas from 2 August, there is also a screening plus Q&A event with the director Isabella Eklöf at London ICA Tuesday 6 August.