It is easy to spend too much time on social media. You are in the middle of something, decide to glance at your feed through your phone and then get sucked in, liking, commenting or just unburdening. You need to have a job that prevents distraction or else keep the darned thing switched off – to heck with FOMO.
Sweat, Swedish writer-director Magnus von Horn’s follow-up to his 2015 debut, The Here After, concerns a young Polish fitness instructor in Warsaw, Sylwia (Magdalena Kolesnik) who is at the other end of an addiction. She needs to provide content. At the start of the film, she leads a group of shoppers in a fitness demonstration, getting them to follow her moves, telling them that they are doing great and that their energy inspires her. Sylwia has a male helper, Klaudiusz (Julian Swiezewski) but she is the one with 600,000 social media followers and an exercise DVD given away with a glossy magazine. Eagerly awaiting news of whether she can appear on a morning TV show, Sylwia is on the verge of superstardom. Only recently, she cracked, posting her anxieties online about feeling lonely. Not the message that her sponsors support.
Sylwia lives her life in performative mode. An everyday thing, like walking up a flight of stairs, is turned into a social media post, a lesson for her followers. She needs validation and appreciates the free gifts – products that she demonstrates with enthusiasm, though how much of this (we wonder) is really real. Actors can switch off when they leave the stage. Sylwia is only herself when she is walking her dog, Jackson, whom she explains doesn’t have his own social media account, only a hashtag.
Being a performer, Sylwia’s social skills let her down, in particular when she runs into an old school friend who relates a traumatic event. Sylwia doesn’t have the life experience to empathise effectively, asking the woman (in so many words) to move past it. The old school friend diffuses an awkward situation by entering Sylwia’s world: ‘how about a selfie?’
On screen throughout, Sylwia retains our sympathy because we understand her dualism – needing to perform but understanding that she cannot live properly because she has commodified every aspect of her life. It is striking that von Horn never turns Sylwia into an object; Kolesnik is never photographed in an exploitative way. The actress makes us keenly aware of Sylwia’s struggle to become human.
Sylwia has other issues to contend with, a stalker in a car outside her building, seemingly motivated by her social media post, whom she becomes aware of whilst she is walking Jackson. Then there’s her mother’s birthday. Sylwia wants her mother to have her DVD and also a large flatscreen television that doesn’t have a suitable place in her apartment. Sylwia stands it by a window. Relating to her extended family, Sylwia feels like a Kardashian sister transplanted into Jersey Shore.
Partly a drama of embarrassment, it builds to a night out before her big television appearance (I found myself thinking, ‘stay in – get some sleep’) during which Sylwia attempts to fix one of her problems. One of the film’s keen observations is that once the cameras are no longer fixed on her, Sylwia struggles to behave naturally. Events take a dark turn, which Sylwia has to fix before anyone notices.
Sweat does not entirely condemn the addiction to a performative lifestyle. In the finale, we see how Sylwia draws strength. She is good at something. Her weightlifting has a purpose. Although aspects of the drama suggest a cautionary tale, the film is far more nuanced. We all need to achieve a balance between the performative (how we show ourselves to others) and the real. We should accept that life requires two modes of living.