Why People Are Obsessed With a Terrible Polish Erotic Thriller

Thanks to the pandemic, Netflix’s first summer hit is a shallow movie full of sun, sex, and spit.

Netflix / The Atlantic

Saliva has had a strange few years.

It seems like just yesterday that the phrase Spit in my mouth catapulted to memetic heights, after the 2018 wide release of Disobedience, a romance film about two Orthodox Jewish women that involves a meticulously choreographed and widely shared sex scene. Saliva had another big moment in 2019: During the first season of Netflix’s thoughtful British raunchfest Sex Education, a memorable encounter between two teenage boys only inspired more memes.

This month, the Twitter-friendly spit-scene category has a new entrant thanks to 365 Days, the Polish erotic thriller that has spent the past two weeks on Netflix’s top-10 list. Unlike Disobedience and Sex Education, there’s a stunning crassness to both this movie and its most famous sequence. 365 Days, which overtook even Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods on the Netflix charts, has a retrograde premise: After the death of his Mob-boss father, an Italian man named Massimo (played by Michele Morrone) kidnaps the Polish woman he’s become fixated on and gives her a year to fall in love with him. Laura (Anna-Maria Sieklucka) initially protests but soon submits to his wiles, loudly and often.

Bypassing all the standards normally required of a viral or box-office sensation, 365 Days has won over audiences and become an unlikely summer hit. Why? The film is a strange snapshot of the bizarre forces shaping culture consumption now: Netflix’s algorithmic cunning, people’s general antsiness during the pandemic—and, of course, the specific disappointment of missing out on warm-weather flings.

365 Dni, as the movie is titled in Polish, defies nearly every rule of good filmmaking. The plot, even if you allow for its queasy gender dynamics, is trite and bewildering. If Beauty and the Beast is a tale as old as time, then 365 Days feels even more outdated than the other erotic interpretation of that classic story: the Fifty Shades of Grey series. Like those films, Netflix’s erotic drama is an adaptation of a novel of the same name (the first in a best-selling trilogy by Blanka Lipinska). And like E. L. James’s latest book, the writing is so preposterous as to be comical. “I’m not a bag of potatoes that you can transfer without my permission!” Laura insists early on. Massimo, meanwhile, asks Laura not once, not twice, but three different times, “Are you lost, baby girl?” It’s never quite clear whether Laura’s directional skills improve over the course of the film, but 365 Days made me wonder whether I myself might be lost: I spent much of it confused about how Laura and Massimo even got from Point A to Point B. When they’re not having sex soundtracked by soft rock, the pair attend social functions as disparate as Mob-run nightclub parties and sun-strewn weddings.

Ultimately, though, none of this really matters. Audiences aren’t watching (and rewatching!) 365 Days for clear geographic references to Sicily, Poland, or any European locale between them. The appeal of Laura and Massimo’s dubious bond in this moment isn’t its commentary on modern romance. Time and space don’t exist in the same way during a pandemic; neither, for that matter, does dating. With current film and TV productions either stalled entirely or wrestling with how to depict intimacy in a world where touching is discouraged, the excesses of 365 Days might feel like a novelty to viewers, in addition to a chance for escapism.

Nearly every tweet or TikTok or Tumblr post about the movie obsesses over its sex scenes, which are as graphic as they are gratuitous. Before they’re even in the same room, the pair climax simultaneously, the camera cutting back and forth between scenes of Laura masturbating and Massimo receiving oral sex on a private plane. (We get it, he’s rich!) The most widely discussed of these scenes further emphasizes his wealth: Laura first concedes to Massimo’s advances after he saves her when she falls off his yacht. Thus begins a sequence so long, it includes aerial drone footage, sweeping shots of the natural vistas surrounding them, several improbable physical contortions, and, yes, the spit.

Much of the social-media response to 365 Days has focused on Morrone, who is among precious few male heartthrobs to be introduced to quarantined audiences. The actor, who also sings some of the songs on the soundtrack, has gained a massive Instagram following and a legion of fans who tweet unprintable remarks to him on a regular basis. Morrone is indeed conventionally attractive, but the zeal he’s inspired feels far more outlandish than the internet thirst that greeted Paul Mescal, who plays Connell Waldron on Hulu’s Normal People. Unlike Connell, Morrone’s Massimo functions not as an actual character but as a stand-in for a type of man—rich, attractive, domineering. He has no personality. But for Laura, and the viewers wishing to trade places with her, that matters a whole lot less than his abs.

It’d be great if I could argue that 365 Days makes a rare, subversive case for pleasure equity in heterosexual couplings. But that’s not what animates the boat scene or any of the others that audiences seem especially moved by. For the bored, desirous quarantined viewer, the movie is simply a blank canvas. Unlike the carefully directed scenes of Sex Education and Disobedience, which were guided by intimacy coordinators, the sex in 365 Days seems wholly removed from character motivations. Netflix’s first summer smash is essentially a montage of impossible-looking pornographic scenes tied together with unnatural dialogue and aspirational landscapes. Which makes it strangely fitting for this moment: Nothing feels real right now, least of all human connection.