The idea of having a luxury break on the sun soaked Turkish Riviera might sound idyllic, which provides the setting for Holiday, the first feature from Swedish director Isabella Eklöf (who previously co-wrote 2018’s dark fairy tale Border). As the central character Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) arrives at Bodrum airport, any feelings of envy we might initially feel towards her are certain to fade rapidly, as this twisted tale unfolds - often in the most shocking way. Holiday caused quite a stir when it first played the festival circuit during 2018, providing a timely - and often unflinching - critique of toxic patriarchy. It would go on to scoop several prestigious Bodil Awards in Denmark and garnered critical acclaim elsewhere around the world.
It emerges that Sascha is the new younger girlfriend of affluent middle-aged Danish businessman Michael (a quietly menacing Lai Yde), whom she meets up with at a swanky villa by the sea, along with his loyal entourage. Exactly how Michael attained his wealth is not spelt out in any detail, as the script (by Eklöf and Johanne Algren) is often sparse on dialogue, with only brief snippets revealing that he’s the boss of a criminal gang. Those illicit gains from smuggling drugs are now being ploughed into local businesses around Turkey, including a hotel where innocent families relax, blissfully unaware of the proprietor’s dealings.
Sascha might be growing accustomed to an extravagant lifestyle, spoilt by expensive jewellery, but it comes at a high price. What is made clear from the outset is that Michael is sadistic, wielding power over all those around him – and Sascha is treated as just another of his possessions. There are strict boundaries in place, which should never be crossed. Overspending on Michael’s card for instance results in Sascha receiving a harsh slap around the face by one of his unpleasant associates, along with an ominous warning of what might happen if she makes the same foolish mistake again.
The slow burn first half follows Sascha’s daily activities, where she joins the “family” for meals, lounges on the beach, visits a club or watches them having fun at the amusements. Nothing is revealed about her past, instead she comes across as a curious character who is shallow and difficult to like. There are reoccurring scenes of Sascha staring intently at herself in mirrors, seemingly flirting with her own reflection. Her recklessness often comes to the fore, ably demonstrated in a brief sequence where she races through the city on a scooter. A workman calls out to warn that her long trailing shawl will get jammed in the wheels if not wrapped more securely but, naturally, she doesn’t heed this piece of advice and comes a cropper.
While there are moments that seem happy-go-lucky, giving the impression that everything is amicable among the group, it’s often short lived. After one of Michael’s cohorts lets him down, we see the guy dragged away to be severely beaten. All this take place off-screen, as we only see what Sascha witnesses and she has been hurriedly ushered into another room – the tv volume turned up to drown out nearby wails of pain. The full extent of Michael’s malice surfaces later when he rapes Sascha on the floor of their apartment. This graphic and prolonged scene is exceptionally tough to watch – and alters the course of the film.
When beaming young Dutch sailor Thomas (Thijs Römer) shows interest in Sascha at an ice cream parlour, he represents a glimmer of hope, maybe offering an escape from this insidious world that she has been drawn into. Thomas is kind, considerate, but doesn’t realise that she “belongs” to Michael – and nobody seems to be in a rush to tell him otherwise. Sascha’s flirtations of course don’t go unnoticed - Michael doesn’t even have to say very much as his icy glare says it all. The two men are poles apart: one has sold most of his possessions for a carefree life voyaging the seas, whereas the other is ruthlessly controlling and materialistic. When the pair come face to face, it makes for a memorably uncomfortable encounter. Thomas is prone to saying the sort of things that many of us will be thinking, perhaps even yelling in frustration or revulsion at this point. By now we’ve been armed with enough foresight to believe that Sascha’s new friendship will lead to further trouble.
One of the strengths of the film is that it defiantly plays against our expectations. It also boasts a brave, understated performance from Sonne – who is seldom off the screen and most definitely a name to watch. It’s a highly provocative debut from a filmmaker who has something to say – and it will be interesting to see where she goes next.
Holiday makes its UK debut on Blu-ray in a limited edition release (3,000 units) from brand new label Anti-Worlds. It has been passed uncut by the BBFC.
The 1080p HD image is flawless, preserving the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Colours are vibrant, with Nadim Carlsen's photography ably showing off the picturesque location work around Turkey.
Audio is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1 Danish. Dialogue is distinct throughout, with some of it also spoken in English, French and Dutch during certain scenes.
The disc provides both optional English translation subtitles and English SDH.
On ‘Holiday’ (2020, 20 mins): Writer-director Eklöf talks about her background, initially taking evening classes in photography and later joining film school in Denmark. She explains how her feature debut was inspired by Johanne Algren's novel Louis Liv, about a young woman existing in a gangster's world. The pair would later collaborate on the screenplay for the film, which became a story about power relationships.
Q&A with Isabella Eklöf (2019, 29 mins): the filmmaker in discussion with critic Lizzie Francke, recorded at London’s ICA. This includes an interesting discussion on what the film is about, the casting process and preparing to shoot the more challenging scenes.
Deleted scene (3 mins): Sascha attracts attention from a group of young men in a short sequence that doesn't add much to the film.
Willy Kyrklund. (2002, 11 mins): short documentary portrait of the acclaimed Finnish author and poet, directed by Eklöf.
Theatrical trailer (1:51)
Limited edition 32-page booklet (not available for review): incudes new writing on the film by Anna Bogutskaya, an interview with Isabella Eklöf by Addy Fong, Peter Walsh on Willy Kyrklund., and film credits
Holiday: Limited Edition Blu-ray is also available from the Anti-Worlds website.