If you know anything at all about Isabella Eklov’s new drama/thriller, Holiday, you’ve probably read about the scene. Every review since the film’s premiere at Sundance will at least mention that Holiday contains one of the most graphic, unsettling sexual assault scenes put to film outside of a Gaspar Noe project. But what often gets left out of the discussion of the film is the spaces between that scene, and especially what comes after. Rape-revenge, this is not, and that’s what sends Holiday hurtling headlong into horror for me.
Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) touches down in the airport of a sunny, beach destination in Turkey. We follow her listlessly drifting through the airport and meeting up with her companion’s driver, and it’s then and there that her abuse – physical, mental, emotional – commences. A pointed and jarring slap across her face, after an admission that anyone might consider trivial, sharply and grimly sets the scene for what Sascha is about to endure. But again, it’s what follows that matters. This is a warning, not just for Sascha, but for you and I as well.
Eventually, you’ll meet Michael, a cold, criminal kingpin, the one to whom Sascha is inextricably linked, and whose gang of goons she’ll be spending this vacation with. The clear-eyed thoughtlessness with which Michael punishes those around him, Sascha especially, is terrifying. He never considers, for even a second, that his actions and words are devastating. Michael is little more than the casual, leisurely, entitled arrogance of a Bond villain, before Bond ever shows up. In Holiday, Bond isn’t coming.
But most of Holiday isn’t that. It’s long, meandering, dialogue-free scenes that compel you to pay attention to the silence, to what’s never said, because it doesn’t have to be. The silence after the slap, the moments just after the horrific assault, these are all so much more telling than the acts themselves. Eklov is happy – or maybe that’s not the word – to linger on Sascha after she’s been violated, as she sits with the humiliation of what’s just occurred. And then Sascha walks away and things carry on as usual. In her face and in her movements, you can see Sascha weighing the emotional cost of these constant violations against the life of materialistic leisure she’s been enjoying. When the latter wins out, it’s both unsurprising and deeply sad.
I mentioned Noe before, but Holiday isn’t a stylized affair like those films are. Part of what is so distressing about Eklov’s vision is that it’s cold, clinical, and nothing is left to the imagination. This is a sun-drenched Holiday, and there’s no upside-down cameras or strobe effects to hide the fact that you’re seeing something truly awful play out in slow motion, until the sharp and unexpected moments that jar you away from the stark whites, golds, and blues of the picturesque Turkish getaway.
Holiday is a remarkable achievement for first-time filmmaker Eklov, and one that certainly left an effect on the BHFF audience last week. Though its content will almost certainly keep it out of your local multiplex and that scene is an ordeal to sit through, it’s an unignorable and important work that is anything but a vacation.