In the wake of Black Mirror, technology has acquired a reputation befitting a supervillain. Social media is often the subject of dark satire, its users and abusers all maladjusted narcissists, as imagined in the episode Nosedive. Swedish writer-director Magnus van Horn takes a more sensitive approach to influencer culture in his sophomore feature, Sweat. In treating the technological shift as an inseparable part of modern life, and influencing as just another profession, van Horn avoids any judgement. His Polish protagonist Sylwia (Magdalena Koleśnik) is a fitness influencer, a girlboss simply capitalising on the lucrative potential of self-commodification. But as she realises, self-commodification does not come without some self-sacrifice.
From unboxing packages to making protein shakes, most every part of Sylwia’s life is documented and broadcasted to some 600,000 followers on Instagram. Or as she calls them, her “loves.” When we first meet her in a Warsaw mall, she is commanding a large crowd of women in a workout class. It’s like a consumerist cult, its followers congregating to perform a ritual. And Sylwia’s their preacher, shouting words of encouragement and radiating all-round good vibes. The hand-held camera captures the tempo, and her bouncing ponytail keeps rhythm with the music beats. With her toned physique, blue eyes, and a pink headband to match her pink spandex, “she’s got the look” — as the Roxette song suggests. She sings it in her car like it’s her mantra.
Off-camera, a different reality imposes itself, opposing the algorithm-friendly persona she has curated for the fans and the brands. By pulling back the curtains on Sylwia’s life beyond the mobile screen, von Horn extends his gaze, revealing the harsh everyday truth: she’s terribly lonely. All she’s got waiting for her at her sleek apartment is a pet terrier and freebies from sponsors. A teary confession about her loneliness and wish to find a companion doesn’t stand well with sponsors worried about how it reflects their brand. There’s no place for such emotional exhibitionism on social media as far as they are concerned.
This gap between public and private personas drives the central conflict in Sweat. The truth reveals itself through Sylwia’s inner life. But even when she confesses it, fans refuse to see it.
When she runs into one on a shopping trip, the woman relates details of a miscarriage as if they are friends IRL. This parasocial interaction exposes the illusion of our relationship with celebrities. For it is always one-sided. Even when Sylwia levels with the woman on how she wishes she could delete her Instagram, the woman fails to acknowledge Sylwia’s distress, instead asking for a selfie.
At the other end of the parasocial spectrum is the fan who gets off on this mediated voyeurism. Seeking intimacy at a distance is a stalker (Tomasz Orpinski) who watches her all day from his car parked outside the apartment complex, masturbating when she takes her dog out for a walk. For him, she is just a fleshy receptacle to be ogled. Yet in an odd, twisted way, this man lurking in her shadow is looking for the same thing she is: a connection.
But Sylwia can’t find a real connection with anyone in her life, not even her own mother (Aleksandra Konieczna). The generational gap also adds to her woes. She desperately seeks her mother’s affection, showering her with gifts from the trade to celebrate her birthday. But the mother belittles her profession, and doesn’t even hide her contempt, spiteful over Sylwia stealing the spotlight at her own party. When the camera stays on Sylwia’s face, you witness the incubation of despair.
Koleśnik’s performance offers an insightful portrait into loneliness, making her character both scrutable and sympathetic.
The dedicated pursuit of physical fitness comes at an emotional cost. It’s an occupational hazard. Indeed, Sylwia is more than just a marketing tool for brands. She truly believes in her message, teaching her “loves” to accept themselves, and motivating them to be their most fit versions. And they love her for it. One of the women breaks down as she confides how Sylwia’s lessons changed her life. Eager to reach more people, Sylwia tries to break into TV, getting herself a gig on a morning news show.
Sweat’s potency and poignance lies in the universality to Sylwia’s woes. Social media has shifted the line between our personal and public lives, concealing who we are and projecting who we appear to be. And Sywlia struggles with this duality too. Her needs too mirror our own: parental validation and a relationship that isn’t one-sided. When she shares her vulnerabilities online, there are reactions both positive and negative. Offline, it’s no different. When she tells her family and friends about her work or the stalker, supportive remarks are undercut by her mother’s blameful sideswipes. The insecurities of putting herself and her work out for the world to see and judge echoes our own.
Our Rating: 3.5 Quints out of 5