Not even a powerful performance by Lena Olin can save this film from its suffocating snobbery and unjustified ageist elitism.
I’m going to say this from the get-go. Never before have I ever seen a film so sanctimonious in every ounce of its being that it made me feel both simultaneously bored and disgusted for a full 104 minutes. Maya Dardel is, without a doubt, the filmic embodiment of the mentality that young people (“those damn millennials!”) are killing age-old establishments – in this case, good literature. You’d think the witch-hunts that certain sectors of the media hold against Generation Z was enough unfounded hysteria for anyone’s appetites, but directorial duo Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak have clearly not had their fill of persecuting the young simply for being young. And now, because of that, we have Maya Dardel on our big screens, polluting cinemas with an all-too-familiar noxious, ageist pomposity that should have remained in the previous century.
Maya Dardel is based around a very simple premise. The eponymous poet and novelist takes to National Public Radio to announce her intention to euthanise herself; to go out at the height of her career before she inevitably sinks into literary decline and physical decrepitude. In light of this, young writers are then invited to visit her at her estate to compete for the post of her heir and executor, but “women need not apply”. Why? Because Maya, as a female author, dislikes female writing (this is your first warning sign as to just how terrible the film gets). This, of course, does not deter the hopeful males that flock to Maya’s estate, only to be humiliated both sexually and critically, in an inscrutable test to find her a suitable successor. Eventually, the options are narrowed down to two young men – Paul, a timid yet talented poet, and the impetuous Ansel. The rest of the movie then unfolds itself in the most uninteresting way possible, consisting entirely of insubstantial pseudo-intellectual conversation. It does this so slowly and so stiflingly that when the screen cuts to black and the end credits roll, the movie’s end brings with it nothing but an overwhelming sense of relief that this ordeal is finally over.
Before the Raindance screening of the film, Cotler took to the stage to address the viewers gathered there. “American audiences are often under the impression that in order for them to enjoy the film, they have to like the characters in it,” he said, as if his audience were made up of babies and cretins who needed a proper lecture on how to enjoy a film. “I hope you’re all not under that impression.” I certainly was not under that impression, yet I can safely conclude nonetheless that Maya Dardel is a film that is completely unenjoyable. And before I get written off as nothing more than a stupid nineteen-year-old who doesn’t have enough years under their belt to enjoy a film, let me just point out that all the other films I enjoyed at Raindance had some very dislikeable characters in them – but unlike Cotler and Zyzak’s host of enfants terrible, those characters actually had more substance to them beyond their writers’ interminable arrogance.
offensive to both rape victims, and in general, anyone with a functioning moral compass
In the vein of Cotler’s condescending lecture, the very essence of Maya Dardel is aimed at discrediting young people, especially those working in the arts. It reduces the majority of young people to flimsy, paper-thin archetypes; unable to write anything more than crude poems titled “Holy Shit!” or to accept defeat without throwing an infantile tantrum. The original title of the movie was ‘A Critically Endangered Species’, which fully lends itself to this view – the ‘endangered’ one being either Maya Dardel in all her senescent genius, or Paul, the only one amongst all her successors who is shown to have a decent, albeit still flawed (at least according to Maya), grasp of poetry. Cotler and Zyzak clearly harbour a deep-seated resentment towards the younger generation, one that sees them use their status as middle-aged authors to assert themselves as somehow more knowledgeable and more credible by default. This ageism is more than obvious throughout the entire film. In a conversation about abstract art, Maya compares Jackson Pollock to the entire cohort of abstract artists in Generation Z. The former is praised, while the latter is immediately dismissed as a bunch of hacks and phoneys, because they are, relatively speaking, indeed just children making art. They therefore put no thought into every splash and fleck of paint in their works, by virtue of their age alone – or at least, that is the view that the entirety of the film purports from start to end, in a disgusting display of self-righteousness that has no place in this day and age, let alone the film industry.
Another incredibly problematic aspect of Maya Dardel is its casual misogyny, which Cotler and Zyzak attempt to validate by funnelling its patronising rhetoric through the mouth of a female character. Maya herself may be a strong-minded, unshakeable woman, but then again, her status as a “critically endangered species” does also allude to the idea that there are not many other women out there who share her spirit – a fact which is, of course, blatantly untrue. Besides Maya’s initial dismissal of all female literature, there is also a scene in which she is raped by one of the authors vying for her estate, only to conclude that it wasn’t actually ‘rape’ simply because she says it isn’t. The whole thing plays out like a badly re-hashed version of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, complete with a middle-aged female victim and dashing young perpetrator. But Maya Dardel handles the issue of rape so clumsily as to trivialise it, and even goes as far as completely dismissing the experiences of sexual assault victims. “You know, at least ten women would call what you did ‘rape’,” says Maya, as if rape is a subjective experience, and her clear expression of non-consent is just a trivial point to be invalidated. Her attacker then tells her, “I’m glad you’re not one of those ten women,” at which Maya just nods coolly; soaking in the approval of her young disqualified protégé. Maya may be twenty years older than the typical age of the ‘cool girl’; the one who is always fine with whatever foolish things men do because she is a ‘Classy Woman’ – but that sure doesn’t stop her from fitting the stereotype to a T, to the point that the film actually becomes offensive to both rape victims, and in general, anyone with a functioning moral compass.
Maya Dardel is a mess. Not a beautiful mess, like some literature, but a god-awful, imperiously elitist mess.
However, even apart from the glaring flaws in her character, legendary Swedish actress Lena Olin’s regal and compelling performance is nonetheless praiseworthy. If one can find it in them to look past the disdainful, egotistical highbrow rhetoric that Maya Dardel spews, then Olin’s sensational portrayal of Maya’s high-handed, odious nature becomes clear enough to see. In her every movement and gesture there is clear distaste; graceful and somehow sensual, which allows for her character’s fetish for erotic and intellectual domination to make even the most stoic of viewers squirm. However, Olin is alone in her brilliance. Nathan Keyes’s performance is as limpid as his one-dimensional character Paul, bringing no life to a depthless role that was already dead on arrival. Alexander Koch is slightly better as Ansel, but then again, the narrow nature of his role doesn’t allow for much more showcasing of any talent beyond a heated outburst here and a witty retort there. Olin is the sole presence that dominates the screen – but that just means that the movie is irredeemable beyond the sole burst of light she brings, as it would with any other screenplay.
Need I say more? Maya Dardel is a mess. Not a beautiful mess, like some literature, but a god-awful, imperiously elitist mess. Boring, supercilious, and, to put it simply, completely up its own arse, Maya Dardel does indeed have a lot in common with its caricatures of young authors. Both have delusions of grandeur – and both are too shallow and complacent to come anywhere close to realising their lofty ideals.
‘Maya Dardel’ is now playing at the Raindance Film Festival 2017, taking place from 20th September to 1st October. Information and tickets here.
Image: Raindance Film Festival 2017