With her directorial debut Holiday, the Swedish writer-director Isabella Eklöf marches confidently into territory that would once have been considered exclusively male; she emerges from it with a powerful rebuke to all those lairy-leery crime movies circling the bargain bin down at your nearest 24-hour garage. At the film's centre is the toxic relationship between a gangster and the moll he's imported to look good on his arm, and Eklöf stays closest to the moll, a peroxide blonde status symbol, Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), who's arrived in the Turkish port of Bodrom with expectations of cash sweeteners and a shot at the good life. Even there, the filmmaker's gaze never softens. Like the daughter of extreme cinema veterans Catherine Breillat and Ulrich Seidl (whose À ma sœur! and Paradise: Love Holiday often resembles), Eklöf confronts the fallout from this grim coupling head-on in ominously fixed camera set-ups that seem to be waiting for the worst to happen. Anybody drawn here anticipating the buoying highs of the Cukor screwball bearing the same title - an altogether more comforting vision of gender relations - would realise very quickly that they'd made a wrong turn. Would that our heroine - a naive, ice cream-licking kid playing at being a woman of the world - had the wherewithal to do likewise.
There are no two ways around it: Holiday is a difficult watch even before the going gets properly bad. Blue-eyed silver fox Michael (Lai Yde) takes delivery of our girl as if she were a new convertible, running a fortysomething finger across her bodywork before offering to rent her out to close associates. Amid that entourage of ne'er-do-wells and nogoodniks muttering shadily about the drug deals that allow them to spend their days in clifftop retreats and restaurants, Sascha cuts a perilously lonely figure. (The character has been conceived as a migrant labourer of sorts, sent to a place where she doesn't speak the language to carry out a combination of housekeeping and sex work.) Eklöf has had the wisdom to relocate what has, in the main, been an urban, inner-city narrative to far sunnier climes, meaning the viewer at least has pretty sunsets and scenery to look at, no matter how ugly the behaviour in the foreground gets; it's a film that might have seemed resistibly chilly were it not playing out in thirty-degree heat. That alone serves as some indication of the control Eklöf exerts, not just over the temperature of these frames, but the content of her images; in this, she is very much the equal of the film's gangster-in-chief. (More of a match, you'd say, than the initially cowering Sascha.) She knows to elide some of the worst, to give us just a sense of the roughhousing and recklessness going on here without dwelling on it: a scooter accident is briskly set up and dealt with, further underlining our heroine's vulnerability, and she confines one horrific beating to a room adjacent to that in which we're left to observe the gathered molls and their poor offspring watching TV.
Yet the violence within the film emerges in unexpected ways; it gets sublimated and rerouted. Eklöf certainly doesn't spare us during her icky centrepiece, a far from entirely consensual sex scene that, while establishing Michael's dominance, goes further in its imagery than the rape in Irreversible (which it looks to be styled after, right down to the mid-grope arrival of an interloper who elects to back away). It's a scene bound to provoke questions: do we need it? And even if the storytelling justifies it, does anyone really need to see it? Narrow down that "anyone" to you, me and your Auntie Doris, and the answer would probably be "no". If, however, we're talking about the denizens of latter-day yachting culture - that commingling of cash and flesh indulged in by several high-profile A-listers, producers and hangers-on - the answer might be an urgent yes. (Swap Bodrom for Cannes, and you get a feel for how close this Holiday falls to home - it's unarguably an interesting film to have circulating as Harvey Weinstein nears trial and the contents of Jeffrey Epstein's black book are being made public.) In years gone by - back when crime narratives were an exclusively male preserve - the movies would have dressed up and romanticised the relationship between an older, powerful man and a younger woman, in part because it reflected well on those in the know or in the club behind the camera. Eklöf, to her credit, simply isn't interested in making life easier for herself, nor indeed for anybody else.
Holiday is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via the BFI.