Dir: Magnus von Horn. Starring: Magdalena Kolesnik, Julian Swiezewski, Aleksandra Konieczna, Zbigniew Zamachowski. Cert 15, 105 mins
It takes mere minutes for Sweat to expose the great lie at the heart of modern influencer culture. In its opening scene, we’re introduced to Sylvia Zajac (Magdalena Kolesnik), whose slick blonde ponytail, pink athletic gear and dazzling perma-smile make her look like a living Barbie doll – a carefully manicured image of perfection projected to her 600,000 Instagram followers. Some of them have gathered for one of her public aerobics classes, where she demonstrates a few easy moves and spits out pithy but empty motivational phrases. “Work with the body you have, not the one you want to have”, she proclaims. She pats one woman on the back and cheerfully tells her that “you could replace me”.
What a cruel joke. She’s easily marketed a kind of aspirational womanhood that sells the idea that anyone can look like her with a few push-ups and protein shakes. There is no mention of her genes, her wealth, or the kind of punishing work she’s doing behind the scenes. Instagram never sees her in pain, or prostrate and pinned beneath the ever-escalating weights she’s forced to lift at the gym. When Sylvia posts a video of herself crying, so that she can indulge in some small part of the loneliness she feels when the camera’s off, she’s both scolded for oversharing and ends up saddled with a stalker who insists they share the same pain.
Swedish director Magnus von Horn’s film, set in Warsaw, is sharp, perceptive, and ultimately ruthless when it comes to life under the yoke of social media. It’s also smart enough never to regress into shallow, misogynistic finger-pointing. Sweat isn’t a lazy diatribe against Gen Z or millennial narcissism – it positions both Sylvia and her followers as the ultimate victims of the disassociation, commodification and depersonalisation that the internet itself causes.
A large part of the credit here goes to Kolesnik, who drifts so seamlessly between artifice and a kind of open-wounded vulnerability that it becomes impossible to tell what constitutes herself and the version of herself she’s selling. The trick is convincing her audience that there’s no difference between the two – social media is as obsessed with authenticity as it is with beautifying photo filters.
Von Horn isn’t afraid to push his film into increasingly dark territory, while expanding his central thesis to include the broader notion that women are constantly expected to perform emotional labour even at the very moment they’re being traumatised. An influencer like Sylvia not only has to project an image of accessibility, but also of constant availability – she is everyone’s friend, all of the time. And at no point, in all of this, does cinematographer Michal Dymek ever stray from Sweat’s cool-toned, Instagram-primed aesthetics. Sylvia has sold her soul to the internet – there’s no escaping it now.