Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Maya Dardel: EIFF Review

Lena Olin stars as novelist and poet Maya Dardel in this unique, dialogue-heavy piece about mortality and the future of print media... Hit the jump to check out my review!

Maya Dardel is a picture both praiseworthy and blameworthy. It’s a superbly made, surprisingly emotional piece of cerebral discussion with a unique premise and absolute dedication to its craft. Unfortunately, it’s also a self-congratulatory slice of pseudo-intellectualism that threatens to derail itself on sheer pretentiousness alone.

Lena Olin pt. 1
Lena Olin stars as the titular author and poet who, for reasons one would suspect are connected to fame, announces on NPR that she is going to kill herself. She has no family and no heir to her estate, so opens up the floor to interviews from young male poets (she ironically ‘can’t stand’ women’s writing) to fill this vacant slot. Roughly the first half of the film consists of a total assassination of the interviewees characters by the reclusive writer: combining techniques verbal, physical, and sexual. The second weaves around the final two candidates – polar opposites of each other – as they compete to win the final prize.

Naturally, as you can tell from this description, the vast majority of Maya Dardel is conversation-based (‘conversation’ including a great deal of oral sex (no wordplay intended folks)). The entire piece takes place on top of a remote mountain in California; both in the author’s telling house – filled with fragile glass and dying flowers – and in her surrounding land (permeated with whimsical touches such as a shipwrecked boat and outdoor sofas). So, perhaps, the ultimate measure of how much you enjoy the experience will be based on how much you enjoy conversation in cinema.

Olin’s performance is, without a doubt, Oscar worthy. Dardel is a complex character whose motivations and inner turmoil often remain frustratingly ambiguous; but the work that’s gone in into making her a tangible person is incredibly evident. Gravelly vocal tones, sadistic glee, and a permanent look of mortal angst deep in the eyes characterise what ends up being an incredibly multi-layered piece of work. As Zachary Cotler said to me himself the day after the screening, Olin "puts subconscious on subconsciously" - she becomes the character without having to even think about it. It’s an immense talent to have – that one feels she is Maya Dardel, rather than simply playing a character named Maya Dardel. She’s acerbic, permanently angry, and possessed of a dangerously severe superiority complex that sees her cut down her targets with remarkable ease. Dardel is best exemplified by the painting she proudly displays on her wall: the real gore and brain matter of an artist who killed herself following cancer diagnosis. Perhaps she, herself, feels that her death will be art: almost as Nietzsche described the ubermensch.
Lena Olin pt. 2

One might think it telling that the original title of Maya Dardel was A Critically Endangered Species. We’re reaching the end of the lifespan of print media; and in the film it feels as if Cotler and Zyzak are really exploring where the medium has to go. In a damning speech given by Alexander Koch’s chauvinist Paul, we’re lectured about how easy it is for bad books to be published nowadays, and take space away from good work. Paul, despite his megalomaniacal sexual and psychological tendencies, admits that he is a rather talentless writer – but also is adamant that his book will one day be published, to the chagrin of talented types everywhere. Combined with the ongoing decline of book sales, and the, erm, ‘intellectual’ types on show here, the future of the novelist would appear to be very bleak indeed.

The entire affair is lensed and designed to perfection by Patrick Scolia: autumnal hues and dust-bound rays of sun floating through the old ramshackle house to remind us constantly of mortality. Much of the film appears to have been filmed in the early evening – leaving the finished product in limbo: a permanent dusk. It’s a fantastic effect, and one that looks positively stunning as the dying waves of light drift over the slumbering landscape of Silicone Valley. Precise and calculated, but somehow also naturalistic and truly free.

Lena Olin pt. 3... is there anyone else in this movie?
Because of the excellence on show here, I want to believe that the flaws of Maya Dardel are the flaws of Maya Dardel herself – but I’m dubious of exonerating director-writer duo Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak fully for the script’s density. Encouragingly, in early scenes, Dardel tears apart the pseudo-intellectual aspects of her applicants with sadistic glee (post-modern types who spell computer as ‘cimputer’ and name their books ‘subdermatoglyphic’). But, then, in later scenes, we hear such lines as “talking about death is a lot like dividing by zero: you just get error messages” and a lengthy internal monologue about three imaginary people staring at a Jackson Pollock painting and having an existential crisis. This awful pretentiousness permeates the entire film and, as such, devalues it to an extent – feeling like the writers are merely trying to be clever. It’s as if we’re on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ tour: the band is putting up a physical barrier between us and the music.

Maya Dardel is an idiosyncratic, fascinating, and at times deeply engrossing insight into a fractured psyche – exploring mortality, creativity, and the future of literature in one convenient feature-length package. However, it’s also peppered with dense language, a very slow pace, and a pseudo-intellectual smog that threatens to engulf any viewer not at the peak of their alertness. You’ll enjoy it, but drink a coffee beforehand lest you get lost in the mist… 
Maya Dardel gets 4 stars!

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