Sweat (2020)

Quick Synopsis: A few days in the life of social media influencer Sylwia Zajac (Magdalena Kolesnik).

I will admit, I’m not too familiar with Polish cinema (which considering I lived with two Polish girls for a year, is not a good sign for me), my only experience being the SUBLIME 2014 film Bogowie which I still hold up as one of the best surprises I’ve had at the cinema, and is my default option for both “suggest a great foreign language film” and “suggest a great film nobody has heard of”. Plus, I’m a white English guy, so my head still unfortunately lumps a lot of European films together because I don’t know enough to differentiate different countries film cultures yet. And the last “European” film I saw was The Columnist (which was also the last film I saw of any description before this) so my brain was always going to compare the two. So this film had the unlucky nature to have both high expectations, yet also be something I knew nothing about.

So with that in mind what can I say about this? Well my immediate thought is wondering whether the two Polish films I’ve watched are outliers or if Polish cinema is fucking incredible. This film is incredibly intense. Not in a “Death and bleakness and horribleness” kind of way that you think “I’m glad this isn’t happening to me”, but in a “this is relentlessly emotionally devastating and I don’t know how this person copes and it’s obviously happening to a lot of people around the world” way.

There’s a lot of criticism of social media influencers, especially fitness ones. The general consensus from people is that it’s not a “proper job” and it’s easy. This film shows just how foolish the notion that it’s “easy” is. Her job defines her whole character. Everything she does, she does it through the lens of her job. Not in a “this is bad writing” way, but because that’s the only way she knows to define herself, she feels she has no identity. She is aware that she has a lot of followers but no friends. Everybody watches her talk, but nobody LISTENS to her.

The film has a real intimacy to it, but it’s a strange detached sense of intimacy. It feels like it’s mostly handheld and shot via very intrusive close ups so you get the sense that even when she’s not filming herself on her phone, that she doesn’t really have any privacy. Even when she’s in a room on her own, the way that Magnus Von Horn shot it means that it still feels like she’s being watched and is putting on a front. I’m a big fan of using the camera to tell a story instead of just “put the camera in this spot and have people talk”, and Von Horn does a fantastic job of it to the point where the camera feels like another character.

Even her own family don’t take her worries seriously. She mentions about how she had to confront a guy who was stalking her, and he was outside her house in his car masturbating as he stared at her. The reaction from her family is “why did you have to go up to his window” and “you were too mean, he could have been a very nice person”. So even among her family she has nobody she feels she can talk to, even among people who “know” her, she can’t talk to them about her concerns. It’s a horrifying scene, which is strange considering it’s just people talking. But that’s what this film is, if I could sum it up it would be an emotional horror movie. Instead of seeing a woman killed, we see her psyche and sense of self-worth take a constant battering and it’s genuinely difficult to watch. This is best highlighted in one of the closing scenes where she’s on a talk show and she just BREAKS, completely, giving one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking speeches I’ve seen:

“What’s wrong with the fact that I admitted that right now there’s no one in my life who loves me? Does that mean that I’m weak or pathetic? In that case I want to be weak and pathetic because that’s when I’m myself. When I’m the Sylwia from the posters I feel very lonely and I’m just tired of pretending that I’m better than I am. I’m tired of wondering that I’m not good enough. I want to be weak and pathetic because weak pathetic people are the most beautiful people on earth”

You could show somebody that scene and they would instantly understand her character. The most heart-breaking part of that speech? That it doesn’t matter. She gets up and does another workout on television in front of the camera. The final shot is her having a big old smile, a big fake smile, that you can see her losing as the film fades to black. That’s the life of a person like this. If you want a vision of their future, imagine a camera pointed at their face, forever.

In summary, I highly recommend this film. It’s like a reverse Joker. That was a film about someone crying out to be noticed by society, this about someone wanting to be noticed by her own friends and family, and for society to let her live for a while. This is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema for like a fiver, and is well worth it.

The Columnist aka De Kuthoer (2019)

Quick Synopsis: Femke Boot (played by Katja Herbers) is an author who is fed up with the constant abuse she gets online, so decides to fight back with murder in a slick social satire.

I was looking forward to this since I first saw the trailer. I showed someone it and they said “Oh that looks right up your street”. And it is, it’s funny, has something to say, has a good look, and looks violently fun. The closest to this I’ve seen is probably I Blame Society. But that wasn’t as focused as this is. This has a definitive villain, but also doesn’t. The problem the main character is dealing with isn’t a single person, it’s a societal imbalance. When that’s handled badly it can ruin a film as it makes the characters journey seem hopeless as if they can’t win, what’s the point of trying? But when done well it will annoy you and you’ll love seeing the character fight back. This is in the second category.

It’s a film that’s deeply uncomfortable to watch, in a good way. The handy thing about this type of plot is you don’t need a big breaking point. You don’t need a “oh, this is what set her off”. There’s no “this is the one incident which caused her to be angry”, it’s just “she’s a woman that has expressed opinions about sexism on the internet”, and everybody will automatically understand her rage and annoyance.

The film would fall apart without the performers though. If you don’t buy what the performers are selling, it won’t work. I know nobody in this film, so I went in with a blank slate in terms of expectations, and I love so many of them. Claire Porro plays Femke’s daughter, and she injects a mischievous energy to her performance, making you aware that even when she’s sitting there looking beaten, she has a plan. She’d make a great villain in a Bond-like movie. Tremendous talent for someone so young. She injects a level of fire to a film that’s already burning, simply fantastic to watch.

While Porro is good, it’s definitely a showcase for Herbers. She gives a great performance. It’s weird to judge performances in foreign languages as it’s based almost entirely on physical performance, you’re not aware of word emphasis etc which could be ruining it. So for all I know, she did terribly and her line delivery was terrible. But for me, judging by what I saw, she was great. It’s a difficult role to do as she has to be likeable, but also a serial killer. So she has to have that weird mix of danger and sweetness. It’s a testament to both her performance, and to the writing, that it works as well as it does.

Now onto the writing, I kind of assumed this was written by a woman, or at the very least directed by one. Not the case, written and directed by men. I kind of like that as it shows that it’s not just women who are disgusted by this behaviour, other men are too. It could be argued that they’re taking away women’s voices, but alternatively it could also be argued that they’re using their position of privilege to amplify issues which others face. If they stay silent, nothing changes for them, they can go on and live their lives. They put themselves in the firing line by calling out their peers, and doing it in such a visceral and clever way that it’s hard to ignore.

Trust me, this film is bloody, and this film is violent. But it’s also very very funny. Not just in the actions but the dialogue too. There’s a sense of playfulness to it that is artfully done enough that it never takes you away from the violence you’re seeing. And it’s very violent, there’s a fantastic montage of her killing misogynistic assholes and I’m all for that kind of violence in cinema.

I guess it’s time to talk about the misogyny that drives this film. It’s a story that so many people will be familiar with. A woman posts an article online saying something like “hey, maybe blackface isn’t a good idea and we should really stop it, and just saying It’s Tradition isn’t good enough”, and gets a lot of hate mail, most of which is misogynistic in nature (“This woman should be impaled cunt first”) . Lots of death threats, lots of people calling her an ugly cunt etc. It’s an ugly part of the film, but it’s an honest part of the film. Whether we like it or not, that is what the internet experience is for a lot of women, and it’s, well it’s not “nice” to see a film say this, but it is good to see a spotlight shone upon it.

Weird thing about this film is something that was completely accidental. Now, there was an incident last week where a twatface dickhead shot people because he wasn’t getting laid enough (that’s not me being glib, that’s pretty much what he said). And here’s a picture of him, and a picture of one of the guys in the film who sent the aforementioned “impaled cunt first” message.

There’s…..there’s definitely a similarity there isn’t there? Very creepy, and the fact it reminded me of such a horrible event does slightly taint it somewhat. But that also kind of shows the power of the film and how accurate the portrayal of the culture is. Good satire reacts, great satire predicts.

So, the downside of the film? The ending, it’s in the trailer so you know it’s coming. Although I suppose with this it’s not so much the destination as it is the journey, and it’s one hell of a journey. There also will be some people who don’t think the ending is complete, but I loved it. It just required you to step away from the film and realise the next steps for every character, I love when that happens as it makes the characters seem like real people.

One final thing: De Kuthoer does not translate to “The Columnist”, it actually means “Cunt whore”. So don’t compliment Dutch writers by calling them Kuthoers. That’s a mistake you only make once.