You’d be forgiven thinking that Holiday, Isabella Eklöf’s extraordinary debut, is nothing more than ten miles of bad road; a brutal slog of a film, full of rape, turmoil, and horror. After all, that’s how the critics coming out of Sundance described it – Eric Kohn of IndieWire memorably claimed the film contained “a brutal, graphic rape scene more alarming than anything comparable in world cinema since Irreversible.”

It’s certainly true that Holiday is occasionally a tough, tough watch – but that has less to do with its shocking, brief moments of violence and much more to do with the moral puzzle it offers up to viewers. The film’s heroine, a gangster’s girlfriend named Sascha (expertly played by Victoria Carmen Sonne), never plays the victim, and her behaviour runs entirely contrary to what we might expect from a woman who, from the film’s very opening act, is alternately beaten and spoiled by the men around her.

Watch the Holiday  trailer here:

In that way, the film shares less with Irreversible, Gaspar Noe’s deliberately sordid rape revenge flick, and much more with Catherine Breillat’s À Ma Sœur!, a film that Eklöf describes as being “canonical” in her development as a filmmaker. “I absolutely hate it when directors try to explain the characters to me,” Eklöf says. “Either you feel mirrored in what the character does, or you don’t.”

As with A Ma Soeur!, the first two acts of Holiday are, on the whole, disarmingly gentle, punctuated by brief moments of violence that even the victims quickly come to ignore. The Turkish landscape is sun-kissed and beautiful, and there are longing shots of sunbathing partygoers, beaches at night, and carefully arranged cakes. “I have always felt that it’s cliché to set dark subject matter in dark locations, and this film needed to feel like the seductive lifestyle that Sascha is offered,” Eklöf explains. “I think films should be about all aspects of life, and luckily beauty is a part of it. Especially if you’re a materialistic girl like Sascha – she’s constantly chasing beauty and pleasure.”

Even the “antagonist” of Holiday, Sascha’s gangster boyfriend Michael, has an eerie kind of charm to him. He’s played with equally distinct lashings of easy-going chirpiness and malevolence by Lai Yde – for most of the film’s running time, he comes across more like a tipsy businessman at an office Christmas party than a mafia don, and the bulk of his criminal wheelings and dealings are kept off-screen. “It’s very simple. We experience everything that Sascha experiences,” says Eklöf. “That’s why there aren’t any scenes of drug deals, for example. The women aren’t involved – other than carrying money, like in the beginning.”

Watch an interview with Isabella Eklöf, the director of Holiday, here:

And yet although she might only be tangentially connected to the film’s seamy criminal underbelly, Sascha is the heart and soul of Holiday – she’s an entirely unique, fully-rounded character played with aplomb by Sonne. “The caster, Gro Therp, basically forced me to cast her,” Eklöf says of Sonne. “I was annoyed with Gro, because I thought Victoria was way too young. But as soon as she started acting it was obvious that she was more intelligent, talented and had a better understanding of the character than any other actress I knew.”

At first, Eklöf struggled to nail the opening act of Holiday – she found herself distracted by peripheral characters and storylines. But before long, she realised she needed to keep her main character in focus; that Sascha was her film’s true moral compass. “Staying intensely in the moment and with the main character’s emotional arc is the key.”

When that clicked, writing Sascha herself was easy. “[Sascha] is simply a mix of me, my co-writer and Victoria,” Eklöf says. “She’s extremely close to home. Her choices are our choices.”

Holiday is playing as part of Sydney Film Festival 2018. For tickets, head here. For more Sydney Festival content, read our breakdown of the fest, here.

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