Pink as a pop of bubblegum and only a little more substantial, Magnus von Horn’s “Sweat,” one of the Cannes 2020 Official Selections that plays during this week’s Cannes Virtual Market is, despite all the cardio, a curiously low-blood-pressure affair. A scrupulously well-observed portrait of a young Polish fitness instructor successfully monetizing her massive social media following but wondering, underneath it all, what it’s all about, the film brilliantly sets up the targets of what could be a truly biting satire, or at least an urgently gripping, topical drama, only to leave them largely intact. And so despite von Horn’s considerable respect for his publicly peppy, privately perplexed heroine, he never gets to any profound insights about the issues raised, from the nature of modern celebrity to body envy to the predatory men who circle Extremely Online women. What’s the point of walking a mile in someone’s shoes if you do it on a treadmill?
We spend three days with Sylwia (an absolutely convincing Magdalena Koleśnik in her first role). Yet even though major upheavals occur, overall they amount to a tick of change that might feel momentous to Sylwia but seems comparatively minor from an external perspective, considering most of us will come to the film already well past done with the idea that Instagram influencer status might be a fulfilling goal to pursue. Indeed, that well-duh revelation has already started to work its way into Sylwia’s psyche before the film begins.
The endorphin rush she gets from her mall-based pep rallies/public workouts is genuine, her connection with her fans and followers sincere. But even after the film’s breathlessly pumped-up opening scene, all hot pink headbands and whipping blonde ponytail – showing DP Michał Dymek‘s excellent camerawork at its most aerobic – discontent descends on her the moment she’s away from the crowd, as soon as she’s turned off her phone and stashed away her camera-ready smile.
Some days before, Sylwia had posted an unusually heartfelt selfie video in amongst the cheerful smoothie recipes and upbeat motivation-speak, in which she tearfully confessed to wishing she had a boyfriend. Her agent tells her it’s gone viral, and while one of her sponsors is displeased that their brand might be associated with this less-than-shiny-happy version, Sylwia herself seems quietly proud, or at least not at all ashamed, of this overshare. But her vulnerability brings her unwanted attention in the form of a stalker whom she confronts in the parking lot of her building, only to have him begin to masturbate in front of her. Between this worry, her dawning realization that online fandom is not the same as real human connection, and the strained, strange relationship with her mother that comes to a head during her mother’s birthday party, the flaws in Sylwia’s veneer of toned, sweat-slicked, adrenalized perfection have started to show, like the small pimples that you can sometimes see breaking out beneath her waterproof makeup.
The story’s most interesting and potentially provocative relationship – between Sylwia and her stalker – is left underdeveloped until a dramatic last-act encounter, which is a missed opportunity as there exists early on the discomfiting, transgressive suggestion that the two may have more in common than they initially assume. More frustrating still, von Horn’s script never really interrogates the underlying assumption that Sylwia’s fitness fixation is an inherently healthy thing. Her obsessive gym-going, mirror-checking, and outfit-adjusting are steadily documented, but though they seem less a factor of narcissism than insecurity, a real investigation into the cult-like aspects of the “wellness industry” is never attempted. The unrealistic expectations that even the most ostensibly body-positive fitness gurus might create – “Work with the body you have, not the body you want!” trills Sylwia, although every second message she gets is from a fan fervently wishing they had her body rather than their own – are never substantially challenged by von Horn’s surprisingly tentative script.
The Swedish writer/director’s debut, “The Here After,” applied his coolly, non-judgmental style in a more persuasive way, to a chilly study of a young man’s attempt to reintegrate into high school after committing a violent crime as a juvenile. There, the studied banality of many of the encounters was always complicated by that sinister undertow; here there are no such hidden depths. As indefinably unhappy as Sylwia is, she remains steadfast in her lifestyle choices, and in her unshakeable faith in the shopworn mantra that she is helping people “become the best version of themselves.” That she never questions the simplistic assumption that the “best version” of anyone is naturally the one that requires the most self-denial and self-abasement – “Take the stairs,” she exhorts her fans, as she puffs up her apartment stairwell loaded down with promotional swag, “no matter how many bags you’re carrying!” – is one thing. But that the film never looks at it too closely either is less excusable.
“She’s got the look! She’s got the look!” Sylwia belts out in tune with the car radio as she drives (it’s a mark of Koleśnik’s sympathetic performance that we can forgive her character so readily for being a Roxette fan). And indeed she does have the look, just like von Horn’s well-made, good-looking, and engagingly performed film. But surely if “Sweat” should teach us anything, it’s that however invested you are in it, and however close you get to perfecting it, “the look” will never be quite enough. [B-]