Isabella Eklöf's Danish-produced debut feature 'Holiday' examines some of the same themes about the uneven power dynamics between men and women that made 2017 the year of women and feminism in film and television. This wave of reckoning with the repressive patriarchy has been unrelenting, not only behind the screen but also on it:
In the dystopian TV series 'The Handmaid's Tale,' Offred joins the rising rebellion against a conservative regime. Celeste, in the crime series 'Big Little Lies,' leaves her abusive husband. In the feature 'The Beguiled,' women at a boarding school poison the rogue who abused their hospitality.
Behind the scenes of the film and television industry, many brave women have come forward with allegations against Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault and rape, sending ripples through the industry and the rest of the world with the #MeToo movement.
Maddeningly Passive Protagonist
Unlike the usual feminist narratives, Eklöf's film doesn't raise a fist. The main character, Sascha, is exasperating in her passivity. During a luxury stay on the Turkish Riviera with her older, criminal lover and his gangster friends, she is plied with expensive jewellery, dinners and drinks in return for being treated like a doormat. Ignoring the gang's shady dealings and violent behaviour, she puts up with being slapped in the face, controlled, humiliated, verbally abused and made to have sex on her lover's terms.
"I'm not interested in doing agitpop like in the seventies, where the women characters did all the right things," Eklöf says.
The director's concern is exploring the kinds of emotions that women who see themselves as strong and independent tend to be ashamed about. Passivity. Dependence. Narcissism. The fear of being alone.
"I'm interested in the character of Sascha because she's strong and weak at the same time. She goes through all of this, but still keeps her head above water. She's a survivor. But at the same time she instinctively allows people to walk all over her. I recognise myself in her, because I'm both strong and weak. I take a seat at the table and go my own way, but if I'm crazy about a man, I turn into an annoying pleaser, wagging my tail."
The Swedish-born director wrote the script with screenwriter Johanne Algren, who was inspired by a vacation she had been on. Eklöf was fascinated by the criminal micro-society, whose code she sees as an amped-up version of society at large in terms of capitalism and repression of women.
"I have Asperger's, which means I'm very interested in systems of rules – and frustrated that I have to live according to arbitrary rules that our ancestors made," says Eklöf.
"The world depicted in the film is thrilling because its system of rules is a little bit different, even if in some ways its a lot like the old-fashioned rules I grew up with in Sweden: having to be stoical and put up with anything without complaining. Those rules apply even more to women. Since I was a child, I myself have found that I was punished if I spoke too loudly and took a seat at the table, and that I wasn't allowed to take a leadership position because I was a girl. I was expected to be a quiet, grey mouse – and that's what I became."
Shining a Light under the Carpet
Eklöf is delighted that 'Holiday' is opening now that the #MeToo movement has gained momentum.
"At the core of #MeToo is a reckoning with the expectation that women should shut up about the things that have been done to them. Sweeping it under the carpet because it's too private, too intimate and shameful to share publicly. I find it fascinating to shine a light under the carpet. The film provides a window into a world of gangsters that is closed off to most people and is always depicted from a male point of view."
Eklöf's graduation film at the National Film School of Denmark, 'Notes from Underground,' pulled back the curtain on another taboo in its story of a girl held prisoner by a paedophile man. Generally speaking, the director is concerned with depicting "evil in everyday life." The evil in 'Holiday' ties in with the materialism and capitalism that motivate the characters to act immorally and inappropriately.
"Theirs is a materialistically imprinted world, and life is all about getting ice cream, shopping for clothes and going to the water park. They go from station to station, paying for new things in new colours – it's like a candy store writ large. It holds up a mirror to the capitalist society, where we're always being manipulated into paying more money. If you pay an extra 2,000 for a dress, you can upgrade it with a real fur collar – and then you need jewellery, too. Nothing is ever good enough. Something is always a little bit better, and you never stop upgrading," Eklöf says.
In the film, we see Sascha model a new bathing suit in front of the mirror and pick the most expensive earrings at the jewellery store, as she basks in the lap of luxury, sunning, going to restaurants and partying. Eventually, however, even luxury gets boring and frustrating, and she tries to find a way out through her relationship with a level-headed Dutch sailor. But it's hard for her to break free. For the spectator it's enervating to watch her trade her dignity for material goods and a sense of belonging – but who can say they are entirely free from the temptation to abandon their principles for money or comfort or from bowing to social pressure? The director elaborates:
"For me, it's a tragedy that she decides to go down that road. But the question is, does she really have a choice? She is rejected, after all, when she tries to find another option. I think a lot of people living in that world want a different kind of life, but they're not welcome anywhere else. Sure, she could go home, but what's waiting for her there? Nothing, probably, just a great silence."
Statistics, Not Individual Responsibility
In fact, it doesn't matter to Eklöf whether Sascha is responsible for her own situation. It's not enough to look at an individual woman's responsibility, she says, when the problem is systemic.
"There are two ways of viewing responsibility: personally and statistically. Of course, you're responsible for yourself – in a way it's my responsibility if I go down an alley in New York and get mugged. But that doesn't mean that it's okay to mug me. I think a lot of people suffer from the illusion that we have all these choices when we really don't, because we're hardwired to react in certain ways because of our experiences and genetics. We're all really pretty predictable," Eklöf says.
For the same reason, the director doesn’t tell Sascha's backstory.
"I could have described her feeling of emptiness or her fear of being alone in an apartment. But I don't like psychology in films. I think it takes the discussion away from the big issues and down to the individual person in an unfortunate way. We can say that all women should be more responsible, but the statistics speak for themselves," Eklöf says.
"It's the same with unemployment. The unemployment rate is this or that, and the unemployment office telling you to pull yourself together and write better applications doesn't create any more jobs. Some people are just unemployed. It's a matter of sociology. Not everyone gets rich by working harder. I'm an old communist, so I see the world in terms of statistics. And I think it's unfortunate that we put the onus on the individual for something they are powerless to change."
Cuts Are Lies
Eklöf's sociological eye and aversion to psychology are mirrored in her aesthetics, which are inspired by the directors Roy Andersson and Carlos Reygadas. 'Holiday' consists of a series of tableaus, with a cut or two in each scene, and the camera keeps its distance to the characters. The film's only close-up of Sascha came about because there was too little room on the balcony.
"Roy Andersson wrote an essay in 1995, 'Our Fear of Seriousness in Our Time,' which is the cornerstone of my aesthetics and ethics. It's about how, the moment you make a cut, a lie is produced. The lie can be fun, and fine for an entertainment film. But I'm not interested in entertaining, but in examining the world. Then I think cuts get in the way. A true examination happens when you're present and can see all the little things," she says.
"Nonetheless, I still make one or two cuts a scene, because I'm inspired by the aesthetics of Carlos Reygadas, where he looks at people from different angles. Not that you're not allowed to make a cut, but you should be aware of why you're making it. If you make a cut because the shot is bad, you didn't do a good enough job," she says.
Eklöf likewise thinks close-ups are a cheap trick.
"I don't believe I can tell what's going on inside a person just because I'm close up. It creates a false intimacy. I read people better when I see their whole body in space. Close-ups aren't bad per se – Bergman and others use them in amazing ways – but they are often used superficially when you pull in tight but there's nothing there to see," she says.
"For me, again, it's about creating distance – moving from the psychological to the sociological, from the onus on the individual to statistics. I'm inspired by the ethics that goes back to Brecht, and was an ideal in the 1970s, of compelling the audience to reflect intellectually. If you look at a big picture long enough, you can't help but start thinking. You spot all the little details you wouldn’t notice if you were preoccupied by your emotions"