I have massive crippling anxiety that makes it very, very hard for me to be able to look people in the eyes when I’m talking to them. It’s not because I have something to hide or don’t like the person, I just can’t look people directly in the eyes for much longer than a glance. Even with my closest friends and sometimes family members, too, I’m just incapable.
So, I developed this trick to hide my problem: because I wear glasses, I sometimes look at the person over the top of my glasses instead. Since everything gets blurry without my glasses on, I’m able to meet people in the eyes without getting extremely anxious because there’s that distance, and I don’t offend other people because to them I’m just looking them in the eyes. Sure, it’s not normal behaviour (as my last therapist had a go at me about), but it enables me to be a functional human being in conversations and that’s not nothing.
I bring this up in relation to Holiday, the debut feature by Isabella Elköf playing in Official Competition, because Holiday has a rape scene. Rape scenes on their own are nothing new for me, either from past Festival experiences (your reminder that The Light of the Moon has yet to see a UK release) or general exposure to films and television shows over the years (my American Alternative Cinema module at university effectively served up a new one of those for 13 straight weeks). But Holiday‘s was different, despite not really being so when typed or spoken out loud.
It occurs in one take, Elköf dead-centres it in the frame so that your eyes can’t ignore it but with enough blank space around the act’s occurrence that it only makes the thing even more stark and attention-grabbing, Michael (Lai Yde) has his fully erect cock given much unimpeded screen time, and Sascha’s (Victoria Carmen Sonne) intermittent muffled cries are truly distressing. But the effect of watching this scene in the moment was genuinely too much.
Something about the combination of anger and apathy in Michael, the deliberate arrangement and blocking of the scene, and his erect penis crossed some kind of line for me and I had to use my glasses trick to get through the scene. I can attest to many others in my press screening also trying to find some way to avoid having to witness the rape, covering their eyes, looking down at the floor, shuffling extremely uncomfortably in their seats.
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Yet, not one of us (to my knowledge) walked out of Holiday. Not during it and certainly not after it. I have absolutely no idea what the reactions will be/would have been like at the public screenings, one can only hope that Festival organisers put up trigger warnings in advance of ticket buying about the scene because it most certainly will trigger sexual assault victims, but we Press & Industry folk stayed.
Holiday is a provocative film in a way that’s designed to last, not merely temporarily. It’s meant to be the bitterest of pills to swallow, something to ruminate and grow on rather than bust out a sub-1000 word hot-take mere hours afterwards in the midst of a Festival that immediately chases it down with a different film altogether. Not very conducive to Festival coverage, basically, so take everything I have said and will say throughout the remainder of this entry as subject to change.
But, hell, even with those caveats, Holiday is a difficult one to talk about if only because its being such a simple movie mechanically causes the mere stating of its subversive nature to constitute a massive spoiler. Sascha is, according to the press release, a trophy wife but given the actions that occur in the film – her coming to Turkey on the down-low via a shady guy who beats her when she spends even a fraction of the 50,000 euros she arrived with, Michael’s definitely-being-a-gangster, and his furiously terrified response when the possibility of the police turning up at their house raises its head since his “the girls are here” implies she and the other women at the house are undocumented – it may not be such a stretch to infer that she’s more a sex-slave.
The specifics aren’t clear and that’s important for Holiday‘s queasy power. Sascha both wants and doesn’t want this life. She’s drawn almost instinctually to the materialism and financial comfort of life under Michael’s thumb, but grows increasingly tired of the emptiness and disaffection as time goes on. Chance encounters with a friendly Dutch sailor named Thomas (Thijs Römer) provide the allure of a simpler life and everything starts to very slowly move towards a seemingly unavoidable trainwreck.
The rape isn’t that trainwreck, that somehow comes later, but it is the point at which things change. Elköf and co-writer Johanne Algren’s screenplay talks about abuse and complicity, but puts such conclusive judgements in the mouth of an honestly kind of vile character. Elköf’s direction is formalist and borderline somnambulist in its opening stretch, but there isn’t a wasted second or scene here and it all moves with an unstoppable and ever-building force towards its pointed finale.
The film emotionally perplexes and can at times be unbearable to watch, even stripping out the rape, yet there are also moments where it doubles as perhaps the darkest comedy of the entire decade. Holiday lives in those contradictions and defies easy description, easy categorisation, or any form of reductivism or compartmentalisation because the execution of the details are so singular and precise that I found it an irresistible watch rather than something that horrified me to the core of my soul. Actually, it still did that and in a way that I haven’t yet been able to shake off, but not in the way that would get me to write off the film.
So, yeah. There’s a thousand wishy-washy words of me trying and failing to articulate my thoughts on Holiday because I am at a film festival writing about movies and they were needed in a timely manner. But I seriously don’t know whether I found Holiday to be brilliant or horrendous. It’s formally excellent – with all three of the leads being magnetic, Elköf’s direction stark and unsparing, and I couldn’t stop watching despite its most sickening moments – but it may also be rather repugnant and got right under me. Still has, frankly.
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