How much can we ever really know about the influencers we follow on social media? Their profession is ultimately an exercise in deception. They give the illusion of candour through near-constant documentation of the everyday – enough apparent ‘authenticity’ to convince us to fork out for their sponcon – while actually revealing very little about their private lives. Where these figures only let us peek behind the curtain, throwing out workshopped vulnerabilities every so often to maintain the illusion of familiarity, Sweat fully draws it back and exposes the hollowness behind its attractive exterior.
To the untrained eye, the fitness instructor and Instagram sensation Sylwia (an adaptable Magdalena Kolesnik) has everything she could want: a sculpted physique, successful home-workout video, lucrative partnership deals, legions of adoring fans and male admirers. Her Instagram account, powered by a 600,000-strong following, is a beacon of positivity where she bounds about enthusiastically in her signature pink sportswear (Elle Woods, step aside) with a plastered-on smile and can-do attitude. But something is missing.
When the ring light’s off and the livestream’s over, Sylwia is overcome by a gnawing loneliness. Everybody wants a piece of her – men want to have sex with her, women want to gush over her – but nobody cares to get to know her. “Sometimes I feel like quitting my job. I’d like to delete my Instagram account because no one would really miss me,” she admits forlornly to a childhood companion, a trail of mucus streaming from her nose. Her schoolmate half-heartedly nods along… then coerces her famous friend into taking a selfie with her. Tired of hiding her true feelings behind a carapace of optimism, Sylwia takes to Instagram and tearfully opens up to her subscribers (who she poignantly calls “my loves”) about how lonely she is.
We see her rewatching this viral clip, in which she yearns for real intimacy, as she sips a protein shake alone on a Friday night in the echoing emptiness of her studio apartment. The anonymous production design of her flat – a soulless one-bedroom decorated in unwelcoming dove grey and white – is remarkably apt because, like her cultivated online image, it functions as a cipher. Aside from a few knick-knacks emblazoned with motivational slogans (‘love yourself’, ‘dream’ and other such fitness-instructor speak), her home lacks personality, and so does she. Sylwia is a blank canvas onto which you can project your desires, therefore when she speaks up about her unhappiness, pouring sadness into a space reserved for total ebullience and being #blessed, she refuses to be whatever you want her to be. That’s a problem – and not just for the sponsors who threaten to drop her for damaging their brand with her sorrow.
Sweat is a considered, insightful character study that smartly expresses Sylwia’s conscious flitting between her different personae (dynamic internet star vs. subdued loner) through its cinematography. During her high-energy classes, the camera is freewheeling, whooshing kinetically across the room as she bounces between her perspiring acolytes, bellowing out orders. Similarly, at a press event, it whizzes around her while she plays to the paparazzi, tossing her long, blonde hair and stretching her tanned legs out in front of her to sit down on the red carpet. When Sylwia is home alone, away from her demanding public, the film’s style shifts: the camera moves more slowly, creating a sedate, reflective mood that mirrors her own.
Kolesnik skips between Sylwia’s mental states with endless legerity. She proves to be a brilliant code-switcher down to the modulation of her voice – its roaring boom in workouts makes way for upward-inflected peppiness in online uploads before transforming into a soft murmur when on the phone with her disapproving mother. The writer-director Magnus von Horn holds our gaze tight on his actress’ face for much of Sweat. Kolesnik rises to the challenge of the close-up, precisely communicating Sylwia’s undulating emotions in the slightest movements of her steel-blue eyes. She delivers an expertly crafted performance that would have surely made a splash at Cannes last year, where the movie was set to premiere before the festival was cancelled due to Covid-19.
“Everyone thinks the fitness world is happy and colourful,” says Sylwia to her uninterested family, “but it also has its dark sides.” Without moralising didacticism on the value of social media, Sweat compassionately examines the inner life of an influencer, the type of person we thumb past on Instagram several times a day but whose offline existence remains mysterious to us. This is a movie that understands the solitude of the ever-refreshing scroll, the pressures of self-branding, the desperation of external approval.
It powerfully shows the very real occupational hazards of being an internet personality, which can take their toll on mental health. At one point, Sylwia is described as “a statue”, a remark that nods to her chiselled frame and perceived unapproachability but, most crucially, reveals that she is seen as devoid of humanity. To those around her, she is not a person: she serves a purpose (a motivator, a lover, a pay cheque) and once it is fulfilled, she is cast aside. So next time you see a beaming, impossibly proportioned influencer unboxing a load of free swag online, spare a thought for them. Their life might not be as perfect as it seems.
‘Sweat’ is out in cinemas and available to stream on Curzon Home now.
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