Why is '365 Days,' a weird Polish erotic thriller, the no. 1 movie on Netflix?

Quick, without looking: what would you guess is the number one movie or show on Netflix right now? Maybe Spike Lee’s latest, widely anticipated Vietnam War drama Da 5 Bloods? Or maybe it’s a shaky but popular original series like 13 Reasons Why or the Steve Carell misfire Space Force. These, or any other feasible choice would be wrong — it’s the Polish erotic thriller 365 Days, which seemed to appear out of thin air on the platform this month.

Credit it to everyone being irrepressibly horny under lockdown, staring down a lost summer or our collective bad taste, but the Fifty Shades of Grey knock-off has become an unlikely worldwide phenomenon. Besides topping the U.S. chart, it’s reached the top three in so many countries: Germany, Lithuania, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey, Sweden, Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Romania, South Africa, India, and more. Released in Poland this February, it was already among the country’s highest grossers in 2020, but the widespread popularity on Netflix for Polish erotica mostly in English is certainly something new.

The film follows Laura Biel, a Warsaw woman who’s disillusioned with her deadbeat boyfriend. On vacation in Italy, she goes for a walk on the beach, where she’s kidnapped by gruesome mafia boss Massimo Torricelli. He reveals that he’d seen Laura five years ago on the beach, and had been fixated on her ever since. As punishment, he effectively imprisons her for 365 days, threatens to blow up her personal life, and gradually coaxes her into what the movie presents as extended consensual erotic sequences. Massimo dangles a life of luxury and romance at the end of this, and well, since the source material is a trilogy of novels, it’s not a spoiler to say that she doesn’t get this by the film’s end.

Its DNA isn’t hard to track: much like an action film connected only by violent set pieces, 365 Days is even more flimsy and gratuitous in its padding around sex scenes. Although it’s effectively two hours of softcore porn sweeping the globe, the book’s author Blanka Lipińska seemed to dismiss its most immediate inspiration. She claims to have read Fifty Shades of Grey on an airplane as her introduction to the genre, and wasn’t impressed. “I found out that it was one of the [worst] books in this genre, but it allowed me to survive the flight and get into reading,” Lipińska said in an interview. I assume that not everything has to stimulate us to intellectual development, there are activities that are supposed to make us regenerate and relax.”

Its film adaptation hasn’t quite lived up to those parameters, currently sitting at 0% on Rotten Tomatoes after six reviews. Despite Lipińska’s misgivings about the E.L. James novel, TV Guide hailed the film as “so graphic and so bad that it makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like Casablanca.

While Fifty Shades came under fire for its conflation of BDSM and abuse, with ongoing debate over whether or not it was consensual as portrayed, 365 Days treads into even more troubling territory. It’s been widely charged with glorifying hallmarks of abusive relationships imprisonment, Stockholm syndrome, and kidnapping. Not that a slice of popular erotica with wooden acting and a wobbly script would ever be the place for a nuanced portrayal, but 365 Days romanticizes even more apparently predatory behavior with little gray area.

While this might feel like a watershed moment for poorly made Polish erotic thrillers, the popularity of 365 Days is an extension of the other weird movies to rise on the Netflix charts. Since the platform launched its top 10 feature earlier this year, it’s led to revived interest in minor recent hits like Molly’s Game and Den of Thieves, closely approximating when a movie would play a million times on TNT and enter the public eye. But 365 Days feels closer in spirit to something like Mel Gibson’s Blood Father or Badlands — two films that grossed less than $1 million — becoming surprise hits.

There’s something strange happening here, with these movies that aren’t bolstered by the huge marketing budgets or promotional push of Netflix originals rising to the top of the charts. Left to their own devices, Netflix subscribers are a mercurial and incredibly horny bunch that defy any easy classification. That said, a 365 Days sequel is set to begin filming whenever the pandemic subsides and it’s safe to do so.