SWEAT – Review by Marietta Steinhart

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The unbearable comfort of your phone’s glow: This modern-day drama from Magnus von Horn is not your typical moralizing punch at Social Media, but rather a nuanced look.

A few years ago I posted a picture of my brothers and me on Instagram. It’s a great picture, really. People would write comments like ”You look so happy!” below – rightfully so. And yet it was a miserable moment in my life.

In a nutshell, this is what Swedish writer-director Magnus von Horn’s Polish-language film Sweat is about: the crater between the lives we live offline and the carefully curated online alter egos we share. The things we want people to see and the things we keep in our hearts.

The young Polish woman (the magnificent Magdalena Koleśnikin in her first leading role in a feature) at the heart of von Horn’s sophomore drama is a shamelessly self-promoting fitness influencer and Social Media celebrity. She films herself eating, walking up stairs (it’s healthy!), driving, and promises her fans that they can have nice legs just like her, if only they work hard enough on themselves. She has achieved some fame in Poland. Companies send her tons of free stuff, protein shakes, outfits, and she is happy to feature it all in her little videos.

When we meet Sylwia for the first time, she works out on a stage in a large Warsaw shopping mall, blonde mane, pink leotard, and flawlessly manicured fingernails, shouting inspiring slogans in front of an amped-up crowd. She’s beaming and so are her fans, which are hoping to be just as beautiful as her.

“Your posture is perfect, you could replace me!” she says to a woman. Later, when she is alone in the locker room, you can’t help but feel that maybe she wants to be replaced. She had a social day. Hundreds of people posted that they love her, hugged her, her latest selfie was probably watched thousands of times, and yet, she can’t help but feel crushingly lonely. She’s got more than half a million followers on Instagram, but no friends.

When Sylwia shares an emotional video in which she speaks openly about the fact that she feels depressed and lonesome, her sponsors don’t like it. Who wants to see their product in such a negative context? On top of that, a solitary admirer (Tomasz Orpinski) feels encouraged to get closer to her, lingering in his car in front of her apartment – with one hand in his pants. It’s sometimes shot like a paranoia thriller, often with a handheld camera, and with a kinetic documentary feel. The lens films Sylwia in her home and on the street as if from the perspective of the stalker, who records himself on video to tell her how lonely and pathetic he feels. He goes way too far, as does Sylwia, who panics, but in a way they need each other. Sweat skillfully lays bare the voyeuristic nature of Social Media and that very same nature’s dependence on people’s narcissism.

It would be all too easy for Magnus von Horn (The Here After, 2015) to make his heroine an immoral character of self-importance, a casualty of consumerism, an oversharing fake, a feminist warrior, or the embodiment of everything that is wrong with our world. No. When Sylwia shows up at her mom’s birthday party, she brings her the latest issue of Women’s Health – with herself on the cover. When her family doesn’t show her the respect and attention she so aggressively wants, she hides in her childhood bedroom. She shares every little intimate detail of her life with the world, but she is uncomfortable when a woman in a shopping mall stops her and starts opening up to Sylwia about her miscarriage. She loves her promo gifts and her spacious apartment. But she ultimately means well. She likes her lunchboxes without plastic, owns a wooden toothbrush and wears sneakers to a posh celebrity event. She’s a businesswoman, but she genuinely wants people to lead better lives.

It’s not a punch at capitalism. And it’s not explicitly a criticism of the female body as a currency and commodity of desire. So instead of painting an all too familiar Social Media and Male Gaze-bashing picture, Sweat allows for moral ambivalence and depth. It’s about how we constantly reassure each other that we’re doing great – all the time. And it’s exhausting.

It’s also a classic tale of a star with a stalker. We’ve seen stories about fandom gone wrong, before the term “influencer” even existed. Think Lauren Bacall, who in The Fan (1988) plays a Broadway star followed by a young disturbed man.

But few films have pictured the Social Media phenomenon as empathically as Sweat. Certainly not Gia Coppola’s Mainstream, a satire of YouTube stardom released last month that makes Social Media out to be the boogeyman. By way of contrast, Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West (2017) about a lonely woman (Aubrey Plaza), who becomes obsessed with the ultimate Insta Queen (Elizabeth Olsen), is a wonderfully strange and dark comedy that reveals some painful truths about online culture. So does Jane Schoenbrun’s unique new film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which had its premiere at Sundance this year and has been getting lots of love from critics. It’s a trippy horror-cousin of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), another compassionate film that rather wonderfully portrays a socially anxious loner (Elsie Fisher), who after school, retreats to her dark bedroom and the comforting light of her smartphone, floating through the web. From here it’s not a far stretch to Sylwia, who we see pretty much doing the same thing – except it’s her job.

Sweat doesn’t add anything new to modern celebrity Angst (nothing Britney Spears hasn’t already told us), and loneliness, that most universal human condition, existed long before we could count likes, of course, as well as the lies that images can tell. But thanks to a powerhouse performance by Magdalena Koleśnik, Sweat allows for a very nuanced and kind look at a profession that has been demonized and mocked. It’s fascinating to watch her at work. And watching movies about people staring at their phones is usually about as stimulating as watching grass grow. This is not the case here. Her energy is contagious.

On national television, a popular morning talk show host asks Sylwia bluntly: “Do you really need to take this so far? Do you have to expose yourself like this?” There’s no easy answer here and it’s up to the viewer – or follower. Throughout it all, she just wants to be loved. She is trying to connect. And as this pandemic has made clearer than ever, we are all just aching for a connection.

ABOUT MARIETTA STEINHART: Born and raised in Vienna, Marietta Steinhart is a New York City based film critic, contributing to Zeit Online, among other media, covering US cinema and TV. She’s an esteemed member of The International Federation of Film Critics and a frequent juror in Film Festivals.

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