You can get away with a hell of a lot if you’ve got Lena Olin. That’s the main thing.
It’s quite hard to make movies about writers unless they had incredibly sensational off-the-page lives (I bow forever before Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June), because the craft of writing is one that requires solitude and inner focus and a realistic one would give you two hours in which ten years elapsed with a frumpy introvert sighing at empty notebooks, giving up and binge-watching reality shows, and capsizing into a slightly drunken slumber, waking every so often to change a semicolon to a comma. The Muse is a stingy little bitch, and she makes people boring.
As the titular character in Maya Dardel, Olin plays an aging poet who was “important” in her thirties and is facing her older years with a waning reputation, no family, and some serious existential shit on her mind. So like any reasonable person, she calls in to an NPR program and announces her intention to kill herself, saying that she needs a young writer to become her heir and literary executor and that women poets “need not apply.”
“Why? Why? Because I don’t like women’s writing…. What?... Dickinson? I don’t know: Some. What? Virginia Woolf was a man. George Eliot was a man. Susan Sontag?”
It’s a stunning scene. Olin paces before the picture windows of a high elevation palace in the Santa Cruz mountains, long hair flowing down her back, pan-Euro not-from-here voice a low cigarette-tinged growl. The autumn light filters through rows of colored glass vases and gleams on the wood floors. She’s impassive, unsentimental—she’s done writing, so obviously the next thing to do is die.
Young male writers file in to interview for the gig. (There are some interesting criteria.) If like me you are a poet, the parade of potential executors is a screamingly funny rogues gallery of hideously earnest clichés—and it’s absolutely killer to watch these clueless peacocks falter as she demands they perform oral sex on her. (There is a montage that is equal parts squirm-inducing and hilarious as these young MFA types are forced to contend with an older woman as a intellectually and sexually powerful, even predatory, animal.) Eventually the contest is narrowed down to two men, painfully shy Ansel (Nathan Keys) and arrogant Paul (Alexander Koch), and the paces she puts them through are almost painful to watch until you remember—if you happen to be a woman, anyway—that it’s painful in part because it wouldn’t be shocking or even interesting if the genders were reversed. Dardel is manipulative, selfish, conniving, mean, arbitrary and totally controlling, and she has no apparent scruples about it.
As a character study, Maya Dardel is a beautiful work of art, a meditation on posterity and a sobering reminder that we have limited control over our legacies. It’s a brave, zero-sentimentality look at female sexuality in the context of aging, and it has lots to say about womanhood, creativity and loss.
The main issue is that the story, while reasonably interesting, is not as interesting as the setup would like you to imagine, and that in such a context, Lena Olin is way too powerful for it. She not only overwhelms her young executor-suitors but the entire movie. There are great exchanges between her and her goofball neighbor Leonora (Rosanna Arquette) and a lot of individually powerful scenes, but while writer-directors Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak are following an excellent instinct to give her center stage, they don’t entirely have the infrastructure to handle her voltage.
That’s not a way of saying, “Don’t bother with this movie.” By all means, bother. Just know that the human munition in the title role is so screen-filling that the actual story is a little flat by comparison.
Directors: Zachary Cotler, Magdalena Zyzak
Writers: Zachary Cotler, Magdalena Zyzak
Starring: Lena Olin, Rosanna Arquette, Alexander Koch, Nathan Keyess
Release Date: October 27, 2017