Sweat: Work/Life Imbalance, by David Bax
When we first meet Sylwia (Magdalana Kolesnik), the protagonist of Magnus von Horn’s Sweat, she is happy. Ecstatically so, in fact. She’s leading a massive group workout session in the common area of a Warsaw shopping mall, cheering on the participants who follow her every command and positive reinforcement with beaming smiles. Even after the workout is done, the euphoria continues as she takes selfies with her acolytes, listens warmly as they tell her how she has inspired them and shares reactions with her many online followers who couldn’t be there. And when she leaves the mall, she’s still elated, zooming her cute little car through the city while singing along loudly to Roxette’s “The Look.” Then she arrives at a scheduled lunch with her manager, finds out she might not have secured the TV show booking she had planned on for later in the week and, with that, the happiness comes to an end.
Sweat follows Sylwia, an Instagram fitness influencer, through just a few days in her life. When she’s not doing public appearances like the one described above, she’s weaving her job and her many sponsorships into nearly every aspect of her life; she livestreams herself preparing lunch so she can namecheck the brand of protein powder she uses, making sure to show the label to the camera. Meanwhile, she navigates mundane things like her mother’s birthday and potentially dangerous ones like the realization that she has a stalker. All of this happens at once. There is no separation between Sylwia’s job and life.
Kolesnik is the subject of nearly every frame of Sweat. No matter the potency of writer/director von Horn’s vision, the film lives and dies with her. With everything Sylwia goes through and the way the camera follows her, it’s about the most demanding role imaginable emotionally, physically and technically. Kolesnik never displays an ounce of self-consciousness or shows us the strings. Her performance is perfect.
There have been a number of movies in recent years that are, in grand terms, about the internet. Sweat comes close to the best of them, Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam, a kind of psychological horror movie about losing one’s real self to one’s online identity. Sweat doesn’t veer into genre but there’s an existentially terrifying aspect to the way Sylwia is constantly either watching herself or watching people watch her. When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back, of course, but what if the abyss is you? Despite the fearsome implications there, though, Sylwia never looks more scared than in the scene where she runs into an old classmate in public and must endure an IRL heart to heart.
But Cam wasn’t the recent movie I found myself thinking of most while watching Sweat. That would be Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux. Von Horn’s ambitions aren’t nearly so messy and grandiloquent as Corbet’s but, in tone and aesthetic, there are strong similarities in the way both movies appear to be just barely keeping pace with the chaotic forward momentum of the person and the life they chronicle. Sweat also contains echoes of Vox Lux‘s insistence that the profound can live within the superficial.
Big picture intent aside, though, Sweat is primarily dedicated to honoring Sylwia and her truth. There are no easy answers to whether her internet fame is damaging her or some pre-existing trauma deserves the credit for her aspirations in the first place. What we know is that happiness, no matter how hollow or fleeting, is real and too rare to be explained away or dismissed.