“All these people will leave, right? (…) I go from everyone touching me all day and talking at me all day to total silence”, shares Lady Gaga in her 2017 documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two. The movie differed itself from other celebrity documentaries for daring to show the dark, extremely lonely sides of being famous, instead of the cookie-cutter “my life is amazing now that I have money and fans” stadium tour feature that it could have ended up being. It was a portrait of the life of a very successful and single woman that revealed the highs and lows of being beloved by millions from afar, but not many people from up close.
But this is not a review of the Gaga film, this is a review of its spiritual sibling: Sweat. A Polish movie, that was selected for 2020 Cannes, about Sylwia Zajac (Magdalena Koleśnik), a fitness motivator and social media influencer. Yes, the setups for both these films are very different, starting off with how Sweat is a work of fiction.
But at the same time, one can´t stop thinking about Lady Gaga´s words when watching this movie. Especially with the way Sweat starts off, with Sylwia giving one of her fitness classes at a mall to a group of smiling women who swarm her and shower her with love and appreciation, right before Sylwia has to leave to change clothes, by herself, away from the attention. She can´t bear to do that for too long, and quickly whips out her phone – never too far from her hand – and records a grateful video talking to her 600.000 followers. Although it is clear that she is actually talking to absolutely no one.
Written and directed by Magnus von Horn, Sweat follows three days in Sylwia´s life. Days filled with gifts from sponsors, trips to the mall, fan messages of devotion, a party, a nail salon appointment, and the possibility to appear on live TV. But none of it is as glamorous as it seems, because Sylwia´s sometimes pathetic longing for a genuine connection with someone is present in all of her interactions.
Von Horn makes sure the influencer´s isolation comes through with every too-close-for-comfort shot of her face. The director has an extremely creative style, and the use of a handheld camera brings in a rhythm to the film that gets deeper and more introspective as it goes on, and Sylwia´s glossy life crumbles around her. You really feel like you are right there with her, but powerless to help.
This is objectively a great film by itself. But the timing of when it was made, right before a global pandemic that would force everyone in the world to grapple with real loneliness for months on end, makes it hit harder than expected. It also doesn´t hurt that actress Magdalena Koleśnik can display more human emotion with one eyebrow raise at the right time, than some people can with their entire face. She has to be at her best, as this is essentially a character study of Sylwie with only herself as the main character, and the actress does not miss a single beat.
Koleśnik gives Sylwia a lot of emotional complexity, which is necessary as the character is written as person who keeps a lot in. Like when a rare, but genuine, moment happens with a stranger at the mall, but is completely broken in seconds when this person asks for a selfie, Sylwia grins and bears it. You can see the frustration behind her eyes, itching to burst out from the smile on her face. People take and take and take things from her, and she is expected to just give it to them.
Another great performance that is even better if you consider its short time onscreen is that of Aleksandra Konieczna, who plays Basia, the standoffish and passive aggressive mother to Sylwia. She steals her scenes with subtle decisions, that further showcase how Sylwia´s ever-present feeling of not being good enough may very well have stemmed from her relationship with her mom.
Von Horn crafts such believable tension between Basia and Sylwia, at Basia´s birthday lunch. It is the conflict that rises between people that know each other too well, but keep expecting the other person to act in a specific way, only to be disappointed or frustrated at the inevitable result.
Sweat is about loneliness in the face of fame. It is also about how terrifying it is to be a woman at all times. Even more so when your image and personal information is so easily accessible. Sylwia is not just a famous person, she is a famous woman. Like many female celebrities, both real and fictional, the fact that they are exposed to the public makes people think they can do whatever they want to them. From criticizing them for acting vulnerable on Instagram, to literally stalking them.
It is lonely to be loved by so many, and it is even more lonely when you are a woman being loved by so many. As the days pass in Sweat, Sylwia´s façade crumbles, and you will see her as a whole person, with a loneliness so big, it swallows every one of her victories. It is a heart-breaking journey, but so interesting to witness.
Sweat in Cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema – 25th June, 2021