Isabelle Eklöf’s ‘Holiday’ Portrays a Harrowing, Violent Reality

Please note that this review contains discussion of rape and sexual assault.

In her directorial debut, Holiday, Isabelle Eklöf aimed to make a bold statement. With a stark setting and a naive protagonist, she showcases the brutality of relationships and the roles women are expected to play, using rape, spousal abuse, and murder to make her point. While some cases of extreme violence are merely exploitative and exhausting, Eklöf portrays a disturbing reality that works to expose exploitation rather than wield it.

Young, blonde, and beautiful Sophie is on vacation with her crime boss boyfriend, spending her days in the sun and her nights drinking by the pool or at a club. Her job is to wear short skirts, look pretty, and be ready to have sex whenever her boyfriend demands it. She is a puppet, which is seen very literally when Michael drugs her and manipulates her unconscious body into various positions. Sophie’s dissatisfaction with this life begins to bubble through the surface, first through long looks at herself in the mirror, then through a friendship with a man she meets at an ice cream shop. But even this friendship cannot save her. Holiday is 90 minutes of a naive girl trying to be whatever her boyfriend wants her to be, only to realize the price of such obedience.

This is a difficult film to watch with none of the empowering satisfaction found in recent rape-revenge films, such as Revenge. In fact, there is no revenge, just male violence and quiet female obedience. The rape scene is graphic and nauseating, though not falling into the exploitative male gaze. Instead of close ups of Sophie’s naked body and pained expressions, the scene is a static long shot, creating a more neutral gaze. But the camera’s distance from the act does not make it any easier to stomach. This film’s rape scene speaks to the very real issue of sexual violence in relationships and the power men feel they can exert over their female partners.

As a survivor of sexual assault at the hands of a partner, Holiday reduced me to tears. But this wasn’t because of the brutal rape scene – it was because of Eklöf’s characterization of Sophie. There is a scene where she dances in front of a mirror, looking at herself with shame, sadness, anger, and disgust, a moment that I can identify with, a moment where you’re wondering how you got here and if you can get out. But, you realize you can’t get out and then you just try to find solace or happiness in one little thing, one little grain of happiness that will help you find yourself through the fear and pain that you experience in an abusive relationship. I was ready for the rape scene, but I was not ready for a scene at an empty club to so violently rip open my chest and pour its contents on screen, showing me a past version of myself I hope to never become again.

While parts of Holiday felt like a punch to the stomach, its overall narrative stops short of making me really invest in Sophie’s character. Her journey is harrowing and upsetting, but there is something missing from truly make me invest in this story. Sophie has no depth outside of her relationship—she is offered no development outside of this vacation spot. This makes the film feel shallow, reflecting the shallow nature of its setting and characters. In the end, the film left me cold, but perhaps this is Eklöf’s goal.  

It may not be quite on par with Revenge or M.F.A., but Eklöf’s Holiday enters a tradition of questioning the treatment and portrayal of the female in an extremely violent, yet poignant, way. Unlike the aforementioned films, Holiday does not offer any moments of empowerment for Sophie. Rather, it portrays a more devastating, yet realistic, response through the stark lens of a party girl trying to find her place in her world. Eklöf’s directorial, alongside Fargeat and Leite, showcases a strong voice in female filmmaking looking to change the portrayal of rape, and the female body, in film.

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