Culture Trips

Mayday review – female-led action fantasy opts for style over substance | Sundance 2021

The ancient Greek myth of the Sirens, the half-woman, half-bird monsters whose mellifluous songs lured men to shipwrecked deaths on their shores, cast desire as inherently dangerous, femininity as bait. The story is overdue for a retelling, along the lines of Madeline Miller’s bestseller Circe, which reimagined the myth of the under-studied Odyssey sorceress through the perspective of a chameleonic, independent, traumatized goddess. Such fresh revision is one of many promising ideas undergirding Mayday, the atmospheric if often airless feature debut of the writer-director Karen Cinorre. There’s great potential in plumbing the tale of the Sirens for motivations masked by centuries of inattention, of attending to the scars that fester into monstrous rage. But its tantalizing visuals far outpace its sparse writing, which pays more attention to the specter of rape and violence than the female characters themselves and disappointingly conflates broad gestures to past trauma with depth.

The shallowness partly owes to Mayday’s jump from one surreal world to another, with little to anchor its ambitious exploration of healing as a sororal dive through the psyche. The film opens at an unnamed seaside restaurant in an unidentifiable place and time, where Anastasia (Grace Van Patten, an unnerving Shailene Woodley lookalike) works as a server. The opening sequence is eerie and groundless, a moody sizzle reel of one-beat characters – doting older employee, hesitant bride, skeevy boss, friendly photographer, disillusioned but watchful co-worker (Juliette Lewis) – smoking cigarettes in dark corners as thunder peals and light bulbs flicker. It’s hinted that Ana, skittish and distressed for reasons unclear, is assaulted by her boss in a back room – he goes in where she’s alone, the camera does not. Shortly after, a military mayday call (“mary, alpha, yankee, delta, alpha, yankee”) by a woman in a voice best described as foreboding ASMR beckons Ana into an oven (little about this initial sequence makes sense in the moment, including how Ana’s journey into the oven lands her in an ocean).

Ana wakes up on a distant isle (assumedly in the Mediterranean) where she meets the mysterious Marsha (Mia Goth), the jittery bride from the first scene turned commander of a beached second world war submarine. The visuals are lush and observant, tenderly lavishing cinematic moments – Marsha teaching Ana to swim, Ana’s dream of hurtling through a tunnel in a car – that lack tenderness, as they do little to explain Ana’s marooning, the logic of this surreal dreamscape, the source of Marsha’s palpable angst, or any tangible details of the stranded women and their nascent bonds at all. Over the film’s first half, Mayday’s vision slowly coheres: Ana’s suicide attempt has landed her in a kind of psychotic, Edenic (minus the war) purgatory for women with unresolved trauma.

Marsha and her deputies, Gert (Soko) and Bea (Havana Rose Liu), track storms and lure soldiers with the breathy mayday call that entranced Ana (a detail Cinorre drew from research into the use of women’s radio voices as weapons during the second world war – the detached feminine voice a tool to demoralize the enemy). Men respond to their calmly delivered pleas and flounder on the rocks; the ones who reach shore, increasingly figures from Ana’s real life at the hotel, are summarily killed and stripped for goods (the stranded women lose most of their memories in the suicide-facilitated portal to the island, and Cinorre’s script unfortunately hews to this blank slate, providing few details on Ana’s relationships).

Marsha provides a sheen of rape revenge motivation to the sorority’s guerrilla existence that’s thickly applied but skin deep – girls make excellent snipers, she tells Ana, because they can hold uncomfortable positions for hours and make themselves invisible. “You need to stop hurting yourself and start hurting others,” she tells Ana when the newbie balks at shooting men encamped on the island, igniting a power struggle that eventually coalesces into Ana’s resolution to leave the island and return to the promise of light in her real life. This is again more gesture than detail; a suitor/friend, Dimitri (Théodore Pellerin), beckons her from the depths of the sea/her psyche – one and the same in this rendering – but there’s so little specificity to Ana’s character that her transformation, launching off a cliff into the unknown, feels inert.

Mayday as a whole orbits an intriguing concept: the processing of trauma as a literal purgatory, the strains of female rage, bitterness, and mourning given bodies and an island to roam. But the genuinely promising ideas are rendered with little precision and a critically misapplied focus – like the recent Promising Young Woman, in which the female protagonist is fully consumed by the plot of rape revenge, Mayday riffs on a strong feminist premise but ultimately privileges the long, unending trail of violence against women over the female characters themselves. There’s potential in Mayday’s vision of healing as otherworldly journey, and certainly in Cinorre’s inventive, observant direction, which deserves another feature. Mayday suggests the ability of healing through community, the capacity for women to build each other back up from self-annihilation. It’s a shame that ambitious vision doesn’t extend to its characters – where they’re from, who and what they love, the real experiences that inform their resiliency. When Gert encourages Ana, as she plots escape in the film’s final third, to remember who she is, I had to ask: who is she? I wish I knew.

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