BY Leila Sackur in EU Reviews , Film | 06 JUL 21

Magnus Von Horn’s ‘Sweat’ Collects the Salty Tears of Influencers

The director’s latest film questions the reality of social media tropes and the boundaries between ‘genuine’ and ‘performed’ in a world of online influencers

 

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BY Leila Sackur in EU Reviews , Film | 06 JUL 21

In Sweat, the sophomore feature from director Magnus von Horn, Polish fitness influencer Sylwia (Magdalena Koleśnik) has amassed 600,000 followers for her workout videos, smoothie recipes and general lifestyle advice. However, not all is well in Sylwia’s world. A man has found her address and watches her constantly from his car parked outside of her apartment. As Sylwia struggles to maintain her privacy, she is also forced to confront the fact there is nothing behind the veneer of her social-media personality. Like other recent films in this influencer genre, such as Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), Sweat questions the reality of ‘authenticity’ in online performance – although his conclusion is more cynical, and ultimately more disturbing.

Sylwia is constantly exchanging affect for cash: in videos, she must always be peppy, smiling and motivational, at the risk of losing sponsorship money. At large-scale meetups with sweating, adoring fans, she must always be generous, at risk alienating them from her product, which is to say herself. As such, Sweat is one of the first films to portray influencers as workers, whose work is emotionally laborious. Where the film is most interesting is in its depiction of a social media trope where the boundary between ‘genuine’ and ‘performed’ selves is supposedly at its most porous: the late-night crying video.

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Magnus von Horn, Sweat, 2021, film stills. Courtesy: Lava Films and Curzon Artificial Eye; photograph: Natalia Łaczynska

At the point at which Sweat begins, Sylwia has just made one of these videos; on a livestream to her followers, lit only by the glow of her iPhone, Sylwia – in a spontaneous outburst of emotion – weeps about her constant loneliness, and how she just wants ‘someone special’ to hold her hand. Typical of its genre, Sylwia’s video is filmed handheld, very close to her un-made-up face, communicating a raw authenticity. Later, Sylwia’s manager warns her that her corporate partners are threatening to pull out: they don’t want their protein shakes associated with such depressing content. But there is one respect in which Sweat’s depiction of the genre is not entirely convincing: Sylwia’s video is not mentioned to her by any of the several fans she encounters over the course of the film, even as they give her intimate details about their own personal problems. In the opening scene, a fan grabs Sylwia during a meet-and-greet workout class and tells her that her videos were life saving. Later, walking through a shopping mall, Sylwia runs into a woman who might be a follower but might also be a friend (she’s so familiar with Sylwia that their relationship is hard to judge) who talks about a recent miscarriage. Whilst this lack of acknowledgment of Sylwia’s sobbing confessional supposedly illustrates how she is denied interiority even by her most devoted fans, it doesn’t quite ring true. In real life, the mini-genre of the crying video generally draws long threads of compassionate comments, which pour in for weeks or months after the upload. Followers use multiple platforms to post heartfelt responses, using Instagram, Twitter or YouTube to increase the chance of the influencer noticing their concern.

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Magnus von Horn, Sweat, 2021, film stills. Courtesy: Lava Films and Curzon Artificial Eye; photograph: Natalia Łaczynska

In an interview with Variety this year, Von Horn himself said, ‘the emotional honesty that I saw on social media was better than what I watched in fiction cinema’. Indeed, these ‘emotionally honest’ uploads give power to parasocial relationships between fans and celebrities: they make fans feel like they’re being given a little intimacy, which in turn intensifies their own desire to respond with sincere concern. The fact that this reciprocity is not shown in Sweat, betrays a misunderstanding on Von Horn’s part of the intensely gendered performances of care between fans and female influencers. Influencing, after all, is pink-collar work: it’s primarily women who upload these crying breakdowns and it’s primarily women (and girls) who respond. It isn’t too much of a stretch to suppose that an invested fanbase would find Sylwia’s crying confessional genuinely distressing.

When Sylwia comes across a crying-video of her stalker – who apologizes for masturbating in front of her and begs for her affection – she’s disgusted not only by his ‘emotional honesty’, but by his body and his desperation. As such, Sweat cleverly stages the ambiguity of the crying-to-camera post: her revulsion is so visceral that we’re never quite sure if Sylwia’s own video was an honest outpouring of emotion or a calculated attempt to sell feelings alongside fitness. Despite this, the stalker allows for the film’s one moment of genuine emotional release, when Sylwia helps him to hospital after her assistant beats him up. The next morning, on breakfast TV, responding to a hostile question from the host about her own tears online, she retorts: ‘I want to be that weak pathetic Sylwia, because weak pathetic people are the most beautiful people in the world.’ But moments later, she beaming as she directs her workout routine. ‘My loves…’ she begins, and the feedback loop of her life starts over.

Main image and thumbnail: Magnus von Horn, Sweat, 2021, film stills. Courtesy: Lava Films and Curzon Artificial Eye; photograph: Natalia Łaczynska

Leila Sackur is a writer based in London, UK.

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