Magnus von Horn’s Sweat avoids the cliche of portraying an Instagram influencer as shallow and instead extends empathy to her and her fans. Keep up to date with our TIFF ’20 coverage.
Every time fitness influencer Sylwia Zajac (Magdalena Kolesnik) posted something on Instagram in Sweat, no matter how innocuous the post, I felt nervous. Sylwia is often alone in her comfy, secure apartment when she posts, but there’s still a pervading feeling that she’s unsafe and being watched; writer-director Magnus von Horn (The Here After) often shoots her from afar like surveillance footage. One wrong word, look, or phone camera movement could get her in trouble or give the game away that she’s not as perfect and happy as she seems on camera.
Few films have portrayed social media influencer culture as accurately and empathetically as Sweat. The easiest trap to fall into is characterising an influencer as shallow just because the content that they post is shallow; von Horn avoids this at every turn. Played beautifully by Kolesnik, Sylwia feels three-dimensional, a woman who’s in over her head and desperate for intimacy amidst the alienation of online fame. She’s well meaning, and she’s also a very capable business owner — because as Sweat makes clear, being an influencer means being the head of your own mini-business. But just like so many of us, her lifestyle has become reliant on social media to a damaging extent.
Von Horn is careful to place the blame on social media itself as a shallow and alienating mechanism, rather than blaming Sylwia or her blindly adoring followers for using it wrong. In the energising opening scene, we see Sylwia excelling at and enjoying her job as a fitness instructor. In the middle of a shopping mall, where her fans have excitedly gathered to workout with the Sylwia Zajac. Sylwia shouts over thumping music that they should “work with the body you have, not the one you want to have.” It’s a bit OTT, sure, but she knows what she’s doing, and the crowd loves her.
But this scene also establishes how much of a performance Sylwia’s work is. Before she greets the crowd, we see her psyching herself up to get on stage, building up to the high of showtime. Von Horn shows us Sylwia putting on her makeup, which immediately demystifies the process and labour behind Sylwia’s camera-ready face. She’s also so much more serious behind the scenes as she gives her team curt instructions with a flat expression. On stage, she transforms into a woman who’s all smiles — but that smile flattens as soon as she’s done, as von Horn captures in closeup. She returns to her dressing room and slumps onto the floor; the performance high was thrilling, but it sapped her of all her energy.
Sylwia’s social media following is built on actual skill, and Kolesnik’s earnest performance ensures we understand that Sylwia genuinely cares about helping people with her workouts. What’s more, we see she has morals that she prizes above financial gain, such as when she steadfastly refuses to accept a product from one of her sponsors because she doesn’t want to promote plastic packaging on her feed.
The film also extends empathy to her followers, even the most invasive and overbearing. These are lonely people, just like Sylwia, so von Horn doesn’t judge them for gravitating toward and idolising the luminous Sylwia, just as he doesn’t judge Sylwia for relying so heavily on their adoration. Sylwia’s interaction with a female fan who stops her in the mall is awkward because the fan expects Sylwia’s full attention and treats her like an old friend rather than a stranger. Von Horn paints the interaction as an invasion of privacy: he introduces the scenes with a shot of Sylwia from afar, glimpsed from the other side of the busy mall, like she’s being surveilled by a spy. He then cuts to a shot of Sylwia from behind, at which point the woman bursts into the frame without warning, shocking us just as her tap on the shoulder shocks Sylwia.
But while von Horn paints the woman’s accosting of Sylwia as an invasion, he is also careful to draw a line between these two women who are both coping with loneliness in unhealthy ways. Sylwia is visibly uncomfortable when the woman, unprompted, starts crying and opening up to Sylwia about her miscarriage. We are forced to sit with Sylwia’s discomfort as von Horn’s camera stays on her thoroughly taken aback expression, even as the woman is speaking. But as the woman continues to tell her story and express her own loneliness, von Horn trains his camera onto the woman, allowing us to get lost in her sad story just as Sylwia begins to do the same. The scene takes an unexpected turn when Sylwia opens up in turn about the anxiety her social media presence is causing her.
Of the creepy and invasive men in Sylwia’s life, von Horn draws a line between her troubled male fans and the real threats to Sylwia’s safety, her fellow influencers. Throughout the film, Sylwia deals with a stalker who parks his car outside her apartment and masturbates when he sees her. She confronts him, and he sends her a tearful apology video — it’s clear this man is mentally unwell — but he keeps coming back. But when Sylwia invites a man from an influencer party back to her apartment and asks him to deal with the situation, he (to her horror) beats the stalker nearly to death and then masturbates in front of her. He harasses Sylwia in the same way that the stalker did, only from a position of social and physical power above Sylwia, as he’s actually in her apartment and has just demonstrated his capacity for violence. Von Horn shoots him in a wide as he slouches on the sofa, stretching out his legs and arms to take up as much space as possible; in the reverse shot, Sylwia is stuck, looking distraught, trapped by his objectifying gaze in a tight closeup.
Instead of blaming any group or individual for Sylwia’s Instagram-induced malaise, von Horn uncovers how the mechanisms of social media can be harmful when too much power and responsibility are piled onto one person. In Sylwia’s case, she’s in so deep that her Instagram fame has become her livelihood: she makes her living through brands paying her to feature their products on her Instagram feed. When Sylwia has a rough night and posts a video in which she cries and admits she’s lonely, one of those brands threatens to backtrack on their deal because they don’t want their product associated with emotional instability. Sylwia is unhappy because her image is so directly tied to her income that she’s become more product than person.
Von Horn is never prescriptive, so your takeaway from Sweat will depend on how cynical you are about the possibility of “authenticity” on social media. Sylwia comes to a personal breakthrough where she decides to be more honest on Instagram: “I want to be that weak, pathetic Sylwia because weak, pathetic people are the most beautiful people.” Von Horn trains the camera on Kolesnik’s tearful face as she delivers these lines, so we can study her expression and understand that she’s being sincere. But while there’s no doubt that Sylwia believes that presenting a more raw, unfiltered version of herself on Instagram will make her happier, von Horn leaves room for the viewer to be skeptical. He doesn’t use score to dictate how the audience should be feeling, for example, preferring to present us with Sylwia’s monologue and allow us to make up our own mind. She ends the film in the same place where she started — leading an audience in a workout. Is this a new start, or has she just found a new version of herself to monetise?
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