Mayday is in theaters and on VOD on Oct. 1, 2021.
Avant-garde cinema isn’t meant to please the masses, but to truly have an impact, we still need to feel something for what’s been presented — and that’s why Karen Cinorre’s Mayday is incredibly frustrating. The director certainly assembles an array of beguiling elements, from her talented cast to the beautiful out-of-time setting, yet none of it stitches together to say what you hope it might all be about.
Opening with an ethereal disembodied female voice reciting the internationally recognized distress signal word of Mayday, Cinorre makes us work to suss out the time, place, and context of Anastasia’s (Grace Van Patten) existence. She’s a mousy waitress working for a catering venue. She likes two of her male colleagues, but she’s treated miserably by her manager and seems rather disconnected to much of the world around her.
MOVIE STILLS – Mayday
During prep for a wedding reception where a storm is raging outside, something happens to Anastasia that transports her into a liminal space where she washes up on an unnamed island, and three young women welcome her into their fold. Marsha (Mia Goth), Bea (Havana Rose Liu), and Gert (Soko) live in an abandoned WWI era submarine and imply that dire consequences in their previous lives brought them to this space where they now practice a variety of signaling techniques to lure soldiers to their small rock and then dispatch of them in cold and cruel ways.
Existing in this feral purgatory, Marsha especially demands that they all find their individual talent so they can eke out vengeance against the subjugators of their gender. Anastasia — renamed Ana by Marsha — is entirely confused and more than reticent about participating in this endless state of innocence lost, even when she eventually warms to the freedoms of their independent lives.
Ana assumes the quartet are all dead, which is implied but never entirely supported by dialogue or circumstances, since it becomes apparent they can be hurt by the men who aren’t dispatched quickly with bullets, stranglings, or drownings. Through dreams of her old life and mumbled conversations with Bea and Gert, Ana pieces together that she doesn’t really belong in this place of cyclical violence, which keeps her as suspended from progress as her inert, old life was.
Despite some beautifully shot locations and intriguing period costuming and set design for the women and their soldier prey to exist within, Mayday feels like it’s trying to say something about how the world has allowed the male gaze to dominate the stories of loss and sacrifice in life and war, making women a footnote to those experiences, but the four women don’t do anything to change that narrative. They don’t make the men they encounter, through force or violence or even conversation, see them as fully formed people. Marsha just inflicts death with determination and quirkiness, and requires the same of her cohorts. At one point a character says, “I don’t think we’re seeing the whole picture,” which sums up the failure of Cinorre’s intentions. Does she want for these women redemption, autonomy, to move forward after their pain? Who knows? The characters exist only as reflections of their pain, so there are no stakes, or even a sense of intentional purpose for any of them.
Because the film presents so little context and is devoid of scenes meant to really connect to who these women are outside of their murky traumas, it’s hard to muster the energy in the last act to care no matter how much the swelling score and the editing tell us we should. Mayday is undoubtedly handsome to look at, with a collection of interesting locations and sound design that all have the potential to engage. But in the end, it’s like watching a gauzy dream about nothing.