Review: Sweat

Director: Magnus von Horn

Stars: Magdalena Koleśnik, Julian Swiezewski, Alexsandra Konieczna

We are a planet of abundant over-sharers. Culturally, collectively, globally… we’re obsessed with self-documentation. From selfies to ‘stories’, news feeds, tweets and everything in between, this website included. We’re habitually cataloging our lives, uploading and updating a persistent stream of information that’s too vast and fleeting to appreciate in its entirety. For Sylwia (Magdalena Koleśnik), there’s something almost profound at that precipice; the idea that she might be able to erase her entire persona with a click of a button – her account, and in a very real sense her life – gone in an instant.

Were that to happen might she finally be free? Sylwia is a fitness influencer with over 600,000 followers on Instagram. Sweat itemises just a couple of days in her hectic schedule, but it captures what might prove to be a watershed transition for her. Cumulatively, her experiences urge her to reflect on what she has, what she wants and who she wants to be. The image she projects through her account – her brand – is as you might expect. Positive. Motivational. Corporate sponsored. But lately cracks in the veneer have started to appear, including a viral video of her breaking down about feeling lonely and wanting a boyfriend.

Sylwia is constantly self-documenting, She might be climbing a flight of stairs with her arms full or fixing the protein shake she’s about to have for breakfast. Everything gets captured. But it seems to leave precious little time for anything else. She is hugely indebted to her following, but the interactive nature of this particularly modern variant on celebrity takes its toll, too. There’s a lecherous stalker sending her videos and touching himself in his car outside her building, for one. And then there are the more innocuous chance encounters she has to endure with her fans, who share intimate details about themselves because of this conjured sense of connection that comes from online stardom. The illusion of a one-on-one relationship that Sylwia tries to kindle.

This applies to herself, too. Her celebrity is a kind of feedback loop. She is constantly reviewing her own content; once something is documented it is re-watched immediately. Her high-rise flat is decorated with magazine photo-spread portraits of herself, and it doesn’t appear as though she participates in anyone else’s social media sphere. She isn’t similarly addicted to consuming content; her addiction is the (false?) sense of connection she receives from the act of sharing herself.

A mid-film sojourn to see her mother (Alexsandra Konieczna) on her birthday feels, in the moment, like an overlong detour, but on reflection it settles Sweat into a particular groove; a long day’s journey into night, so to speak. Ahead is a surprisingly dark and bloody odyssey, one that is played plainly and gruesomely for us to decide on its eventual impact.

After a stop off at a Warsaw night spot for a photo op, Sylwia engineers a furtive, drunken connection with her on-stage fitness partner Klaudisz (Julian Swiezewski). But, when the encounter proves sexually stifled, Klaudisz’s frustration manifests in violence. Not, thankfully, against Sylwia (a path we’ve seen depicted ad nauseam). Instead this conflation of sex and violence generates a new situation, one that forces Sylwia to make some potentially life-altering decisions.

Magnus von Horn’s DP Michael Dymek keeps things crisp and fluid. Sweat is documented with handheld immediacy. In a few instances, the camera gets intensely close to its subject, swarming Sylwia intrusively. I’m thinking particularly of hyper-close-up shots of her fingers as they’re manicured, or a mesmeric shot of her running on a treadmill, her bobbing head turned into a bouncing abstraction. At other times we observe her from eerie distances. We take on the role of voyeur. And once, pointedly, our stare is squarely returned. It’s like an effort to make us flinch.

The constant subject of our attention, Koleśnik gives her all in an exceedingly demanding role, both physically and emotionally. The centre of every scene of the movie, its a powerhouse lead and one of the best performances to have graced our screens this year.

On live television, Sylwia makes an impassioned defense of her viral outburst, suggesting that she was being real for her fans, and that she’s now being vilified for showing weakness. It’s a rousing case for emotional honesty. But, from such an expert saleswoman so attuned to creating a pitch-perfect veneer, one can’t help but wonder if this too is a calculated, savvy response while under fire. Has anything of the previous night really changed her, or is it all forgotten once the lights and cameras are on? Once she has the fleeting attention of her myriad fans? Once the serotonin hits again?

Sweat is, more than anything else, a character study, and an astute one. This isn’t a hectoring picture about the ills of social media. Granted, we’re led to conclusions about its detrimental effect on Sylwia (how her smile vanishes the moment the cameras are turned off), but it is also presented as what it can be; a valid and profitable job. Keenly, the decisions Sylwia has to make in the dead of night in the car park outside her building have little to do with any ramifications for her social media persona, but with what sits right with her as a human being.

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