First premiering at Sundance 2018, the Isabella Eklöf-directed and co-written crime thriller Holiday spent most of that year jumping from festival to festival without much in the way of a large release. Eklöf’s incredible direction, her script with co-writer Johanne Algren, and Nadim Carlsen’s beautiful cinematography produce one of the more unsettling experiences in recent memory. While there are signs from the start that Holiday is going to be an unpleasant experience, there’s little preparation for the repeated violations to which the audience bears witness. Seeing as Holiday releases in the U.S. on DVD and digital February 26th, a new opportunity appears for a wider audience to take in this patient and deeply uncomfortable crime thriller.
Young and beautiful Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) desires a life of carefree abandon, one in which she doesn’t have to worry about money and is able to enjoy a more decadent lifestyle. Arriving in the port city of Bodrum on the Turkish Riviera, her contact Bobby (Yuval Segal) takes her to meet Michael (Lai Yde), a crime boss on a “family” vacation. The more time she spends with Michael, the more Sascha realizes that things aren’t always jewelry, drugs, and fine food. Sometimes there’s violence, and more often than not, that violence spills over into her relationship with Michael. While getting ice cream in town with one of Michael’s family members, Sascha meets Tomas (Thijs Römer), a former salesman traveling through the area, and an unexpected relationship begins to bloom as the two bump into each other around town. Suddenly a choice must be made – stay the trophy girlfriend of a drug lord or run away to a tamer adventure. Can Sascha handle the cost?
Unlike most other crime thrillers, Holiday isn’t interested in examining the underworld aspects in a way which makes those aspects tangible. Instead, the drug running, the violence, and the other nastier aspects of Michael’s world are largely kept out of view, allowing them to become an unpredictable specter hanging over every interaction. This may bother some viewers who are curious about those details to flesh out the world, except this narrative blind spot is significant to the thematic exploration within Holiday. The film isn’t digging into the morality of the lifestyle. It’s more focused on Sascha’s active choice to join it and remain within it. Shortly after the film begins, Bobby picks up Sascha to take her to see Michael and the audience picks up, mostly through inference, that Sascha is neither prone to violence nor excited by it. So, to see her reaction as violence grows ever closer to her throughout the film is fascinating. Putting her center stage, a newbie, not one of the already ingratiated, makes what the audience observes and what Sascha endures far more troubling and increasingly more uncomfortable. In terms of character exploration, Sascha begins as a pretty, sweet, fun-loving party girl. To see how she acclimates to Michael’s world raises a great deal of questions. To their credit, Eklöf and Algren don’t seem intent on answering them.
Persistent contradiction and abstruseness is where Holiday lives. Though violence is a way of life for Michael and his family, nothing about the cinematography suggests this. To Carlsen’s credit, Holiday could fit into virtually any romantic view of a vacation on the Turkish Rivera where the wealthy lounge during the day and party at night, where everyone is beautiful, in love, and never wanting. There’s a persistent energy, a constant clarity to every scene, making the film feel bathed in light and positivity. In contrast, Eklöf’s direction is still, measured, and focused. The film opens with a still shot inside an airport, the sounds of footsteps coming from outside the audience’s view, the lobby beautifully lit to convey joy, happiness, and adventure. The camera holding still, Sascha comes into view as she walks across, then toward the camera, only turning just before she reaches it. At the moment when Sascha turns, the camera follows to observe her leaving. Throughout Holiday, the camera is a constant observer, watching without judgement, inserting no energy or vibe to the proceedings. This is particularly important in an extended sequence in which Sascha subjected to a lengthy violent sexual encounter with Michael. Nothing about the scene is romanticized or exaggerated through camerawork, lighting, or editing. Instead, it occurs before the audience who is helpless to look away as the camera remains fixed. To describe the sequence as deeply disconcerting doesn’t get close to touching on the psychological damage inflicted upon both Sascha and the audience. It’s witnessing not just the violence in near-X-rated detail, but also the compounding elements offered by the execution of the scene which does this.
Holiday is not an “art film” which pretends significance where there is none. Rather, it uses the clean, smooth veneer of a romanticized life to foreshadow the very real violence which exists when we knowingly enter into a relationship with a violent world. During the opening credits, the rhythmic pounding of a remix of Nina Simone’s classic “Sinnerman” plays before a slow fade reveals a women wearing a skimpy white outfit who writhes on the floor to the beat. Later, Sascha and the gang go to a dance club and she spends her time dancing close to a mirror, her reflection in frame as she caresses her own face like a lover. Then there’s the aforementioned sex scene between Michael and Sascha. As the events play out, someone starts coming downstairs from out of frame, freezes, and goes back the way they came. It’s a chilling moment which nails home the notion that Michael is untouchable. Each of these moments intend to provoke discomfort, the fixed eye line and use of reflection portend an internal unrest which the audience can’t fully decipher.
Despite its technical accomplishments, Holiday contains some problem areas which are hard to ignore. The slow creeping narrative created by Eklöf and Algren offers zero background on who Sascha is, what Michael does, or the significance of any of the people Michael surrounds himself. Additionally, beyond what the audience infers, Sascha is a total blank slate. We have no sense of who she is or what she wants, beyond the obvious. This makes every choice she makes a good or bad one based solely on how the audience reacts. It’s certainly a bold choice to leave so much up to the audience, yet the lack of a precise moral tether for Sascha makes staying engaged with the fairly lackadaisical story incredibly difficult. However, if you can remain engaged, the culmination of Holiday changes everything we’ve witnessed up to that point profoundly. It’s a declarative statement with incredible reverberations, not just for Sascha, but for the audience’s perception of what happens next and those events which transpired before it. In this sense, Holiday reveals itself as a morality play whose end result is metaphysically disquieting.
Trigger Warning for Suggested and Prolonged Sexual Violence.
Available on DVD and digital Februray 26th, 2019. For more information, head to Breaking Glass Pictures’ website. No bonus features available at the time of review.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.