Sweat movie review: let’s get metaphysical

MaryAnn’s quick take: Nuanced, sensitive peek into the world of a social-media influencer, with a beautiful central performance. Uncynical and pragmatic about the seachange human society has endured in the 21st century.
I’m “biast” (pro): desperate for stories about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Hand-wringing over the perils of social media does not, refreshingly, factor into Swedish filmmaker Magnus von Horn’s second feature, the unexpectedly nuanced and sensitive Sweat. (If I’d realized before now that his first feature was the deeply unsettling but also similarly complex and compassionate The Here After (Efterskalv), that would have been less surprising.)

Fictional but clearly closely inspired by reality, this is a slice-of-life peek into the world of Warsaw health-and-well-being influencer Sylwia Zajac (Magdalena Kolesnik, a beautiful performance). Her 600,000 Instagram followers are her everything, in the best possible way. The film opens with her leading a loud, bouncy, rowdy, fun exercise class in a shopping mall, cheering on her adoring followers to push themselves, but not too much! Her motto is “Work with the body you have, not the body you want.” That is… pretty radical, for the fitness arena, and pretty compassionate in itself.

Not only does Sylwia come across as real, she actually is the real deal: after the class she spends a long time taking selfies, giving hugs, and chatting with the fans who have come out to the mall to sweat with her and bask in her presence. And there’s never a moment when she’s finally offscreen — because this has all, of course, been livestreamed — when she suddenly deflates, rolls her eyes, or privately disparages her fans. They love her, and she genuinely loves them, and draws her own power and inspiration from them, right back.

Sweat Magdalena Kolesnik
Oh, honey, blue light is so bad just before bedtime…

But this is merely the setup. Von Horn’s thesis here, if we can call it that, is never that the intimacy of social media is artificial — it obviously is not, and we see it serving authentic human purposes — but that it’s just not enough. The good and the bad that befalls Sylwia over the three days the film tracks follow on from a very vulnerable post she shared online, about how she’d love to have a nice boyfriend in her life. That teary video was a lot more raw than anything she’d shared before, and it sets off a series of events that highlight just how lonely she is, and how it is tearing at her. That video, and what it revealed about the reality of her life, not least to Sylwia herself, will shape her every interaction she has, from a tense birthday party for her mother (Aleksandra Konieczna: Corpus Christi) to several encounters with an online stalker (Zbigniew Zamachowski: Proof of Life) who shows up IRL.

Sweat is a powerfully uncynical movie, and yet also a very pragmatic one, about the seachange human society has endured in the 21st century. Social media is here to stay. This is our culture today. People like Sylwia are our new celebrities. And that’s really not, no pun intended, anything to get too worked up about. Sylwia is honest and unfeigned. We just need to remember that what we see of the likes of her on Instagram is not the totality of her life. We just need to remember that her life is more than what she posts online.

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Mon, Sep 06, 2021 12:56am

This is a different film about digital life, and has a very strong lead performance.
But I resented that the main conflict ended up being about sexual threats to the protagonist. There’s a very disturbing interview in The Guardian with the director of this movie, in which he compares himself with the stalker character. He said that he used to be obsessed with some fitness guru himself, despite not understanding what the influencer thing was about. It appeared to me that the director was kinda teaching himself to see the humanity in the female celebrities he followed online through this movie. But, for the protagonist of the film to show this humanity, she had to be nice to her stalker and rescue him to the hospital. Almost like It was an incel fantasy of some sort. It also comes through in lines like the mother saying she’s judging him too early, that he could be a good person (!) and the stalker saying they’re very similar in their shared loneliness. I found this focus on the stalker subplot (and then the threat of her friend in her house) very disturbing. With all the things that could be said about the backstage of influencer life, once again male directors kinda choose to talk about their backward views about women who perform in public. It was actresses before influencers, and then women who performed in theather and so on. Always derrided as indecent, shameful, shalow, attention seeking, etc. Nothing new. I actually liked the ending, but the main focus of the film felt very problematic.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  C
Thu, Sep 09, 2021 10:41am

I resented that the main conflict ended up being about sexual threats to the protagonist.

I don’t think that is the main conflict. The main conflict is within Sylwia herself, and between the illusions of social media and the realities of it. And I think Sylwia’s humanity is perfectly from the very beginning of the film.

If this were an incel fantasy, Sylwia’s interactions with the stalker would have been very different, and ended very differently, then they do. And it seems clear to me that her mother is portrayed in such a way that she does not understand either social media or the higher expectations that women have with regards to men and relationships nowadays. (Believe me, Sylwia is far from the only young women to have been told by older women to give a rando a chance, he might be nice!)

I simply disagree that the director is displaying a backward view about women here.