Mayday: Is One Idea Good Enough?

Mayday (2021)

Mayday (2021) premiered last week at both the Sundance and Rotterdam film festivals. The feature debut by writer-director Karen Cinorre has been branded a fantasy-action film, a feminist fever dream and a beautifully designed mythical parable, by the festivals’ publicity departments.

Scout Tafoya (reporting on Sundance) and Kaj van Zoelen (reporting on the IFFR) discuss whether all this lofty praise is warranted, what the film might be about and how Cinorre goes about telling the story of Ana, a young woman living a miserable life, who’s suddenly transported to a mysterious warzone in which women fight against men.

Mayday (2021)

Scout Tafoya: I think I first heard of the concept of forced feminisation from Carol Grant and Michael Sicinski on Twitter, but I can’t be sure. I should really take better notes about when important concepts are introduced to my feeble brain. I’m getting old and boy oh boy does it suck. Anyhow, the idea, in fiction anyway, is basically like this: you take the Lost Boys from Peter Pan, and you have girls play them. They go on the boy adventures in boy clothes, but you’ve subverted expectations without doing much work. Sicinski I seem to recall brought up Bertrand Mandico’s The Wild Boys (2017), which was about, (gasp!), wild girls. It’s an easy way to say you’re changing the paradigm of gender representation, but really you’re just using someone else’s car to drive somewhere new. It’s not the worst sin a director can commit, of course, it’s just a hair unimaginative in 2021, when you could just write new myths.

This was all heavily on my mind during Mayday, which puts girls in men’s bomber jackets and has them shooting guns and talking about kills and stuff. Guy stuff, basically, from guy’s war movies. It’s fun and it’s got a breezy kind of attitude but I was breathlessly waiting for Cinorre to reveal her second idea and it never came. Movies like this and to grab another recent movie, The Wanting Mare (2020) are very fun and freeing because they don’t do things the way other movies do. However…if you tear up the rule book you have to replace it with something. This is mostly just a series of shots of girls doing things that should amount to something but…doesn’t. They’ve got exciting visuals and breathless rhythm, but I think a movie like Mayday is so underwhelming because Cinorre is so obviously a skilled director of milieu and design but she doesn’t have anything else to work with here. What is this movie about? Like yes, daydreams because the world is awful and masculine (and I recognize the irony of a male critic giving it a hard time), but you could get that from the first ten minutes. The girls here shoot at the boys, they run around their island, they swim, they talk in poetic riddles, and that’s…about…it… It’s like Josephine Decker’s Suckerpunch. There just isn’t much else to grab onto. There is, for instance, one of the best sequences I think I’ll probably sit through all year, a dance number with soldiers while bombs go off in the background. It’s so witty and fun and exciting and the movie at its best has this kind of zany, go-for-broke energy and it made me wonder why the rest of the movie wasn’t so motivated. There’s a lot to like here but I never shook the idea that Mayday is a fifteen-minute idea in a 90-minute head.

Mayday (2021)

Kaj van Zoelen: I feel like there’s something more to that idea than you’re giving it credit just now. Or, at least, in the sense, that ultimately Cinorre and her protagonist Ana reject the main idea of girls doing “guy stuff” as the answer to women suffering from awful masculinity. Then again, it’s never really made clear just why Ana wants to return to ‘normal world’, full of misery and abuse at the hand of a male boss (including implied sexual abuse, besides regular treating her like shit for no reason), beyond that she finds the rather random killing of men as much soul-deadening as real life. Unless the point is that she’s able to overcome the powerless misery of the real world because of her temporary power fantasy that is the alternate universe in which she spends most of the film. That a fantasy in which she becomes an expert sniper who kills male soldiers without discrimination, simply for being the enemy, is enough to endure. Which is pretty bleak, considering Cinorre’s portrayal of the real world is so miserable.

There’s something to the fact that all these men are mostly hapless victims, often killed in their sleep or helpless positions, begging for mercy, despite being dressed as soldiers and carrying weapons. They’re guilty merely by being men. A metaphor for how women have to navigate a world full of toxic masculinity and a rejection of constantly having to gauge whether or not the next man to come along is dangerous or not. Better safe than sorry, shoot ’em. Yet, that idea is also not really explored beyond that main premise. So while I feel there’s more than just one idea here, all of could’ve done with more realisation. And if Cinorre doesn’t have enough to work with here as a director, she should’ve written a script to match her talent, rather than the one she wrote now. A script, perhaps with more sequences like the dance number you mention, and in which that doesn’t feel as out of place as it did here.

Mayday (2021)

ST: Yeah, I think there’s something in there of course, and I like your reading very much about the randomness of their shooting these dumb soldiers in their sleep, because if left alive, they’ll attack and try to kill them like the one fellow by the cliffside who prevents our heroine from going swimming with her friends. On the one hand that’s just a perfect metaphor for what it can feel like to be a woman in public. On the other, as you say, that seems to be the only trick the film has up its sleeve. I guess vis-à-vis the ending of the fantasy world, it is pretty profoundly sad that even in her fantasy world she still has to be on guard against male desire and their deadly single-mindedness. But if that’s the case, it does read as less tragic for the reasons stated by the text that she chooses to go back. We don’t really get to know her at all. What does she miss? Why does she miss it? That’s where I think Cinorre expects the language of myth and fable to take over, but by mixing the extreme violence of reality, the kind of movieness of all the World War 2 clothing and guns and stuff, and not filling any of the backstories or personalities of anybody, it remains too abstract to come to a satisfying conclusion. I won’t sit here and try to explain all the ways this could have been shaded, but the fact that it seems like there’s still something missing remains the problem. 

The movie is the movie, right? If we don’t know anything about the past lives these women leave behind, that’s on purpose. So the point then must be that it doesn’t matter what they’re leaving behind and that escaping into a fantasy world isn’t really the answer for all women in dealing with the sexually violent “real world.” But that then makes the kind of attitude that the characters and the movie adopt at the end all the weirder because everyone strikes a note of sort of tragic triumph, but why? Why does anyone feel anything, I guess. The fantasy is only fun because they’re the ones who get to kill whoever they please like boys do, and as our hero says to Mia Goth, that kind of makes you a psychopath. Goth replies that all heroes are, but I think we’re meant to see that as thin justification rather than a mission statement. Or anyway, the note of sad uncertainty in Goth’s voice is enough of a reasonable doubt in my mind. It seems to me that leaving the fantasy to go back to reality isn’t really a “win,” unless we then see what she does with her life after she returns. As it stands, she’s going back to a job she hates, a sex pest boss, etc. etc. But because this is a fable, we don’t see any of the real stuff she needs to do to prove that her time in the fantasy world was “worth it” or whatever. But again I feel like Cinorre’s not really interested in that. She just wanted to create the fantasy world and live there for a bit and then all stories need a happy ending, so she gave it one, even if it doesn’t work.

Ultimately she’s right, as far as that goes, in that no happy ending, in reality, could be the equal of a whole movie spent in neverland. Spielberg tried to bring some of that magic back into the real world and in so doing gave Hook (1991) one of the very worst endings in all of cinema. So maybe it isn’t that Cinorre made a film that hedges its bets, maybe it’s that this is a genre that’s ill-equipped for deeper meaning beyond the obviously metaphorical and really all it can provide is a bit of a soul searching whisk. I mean there’s got to be a reason people keep making movies like this, right? Because we all want to escape. And yet everyone comes to the same conclusion: you have to go back to the real world at some point. Maybe I just need something else after all these years of Peter Pan stories. Maybe I just can’t stomach whimsy when it touches real life. Like Hobbits and all that nonsense are fine by me because they only ever “accidentally” resemble real life (obviously all Tolkien is about World War One, but no one says “David Lloyd George isn’t gonna like this!”). This is obviously meant as a companion piece to what we know and what we see today. And I’m clearly not the person who needs it, but maybe there are people who do. Do I sound like a cynical old man? 

Mayday (2021)

KvZ: That one fellow who attacks her by the cliffside just happens to be played by the same actor as her abusive boss, and she calls him the man who haunts her dreams. His attack, and the subsequent turnaround with him becoming the hunted victim, feel like metaphor and revenge fantasy at the same time. He’s not just a man like the others, he’s her specific tormentor. Yet, when given the chance at revenge, egged on by Mia Goth’s character Marsha (who ultimately does the killing) Ana refuses. It’s stuff like this that tethers the fantasy to real life, in a way that makes it impossible for it to fully feel like an escape. The same goes for Marsha –  Mia Goth also plays the bride who doesn’t want to get married in the opening sequence – she kills the man who’s her husband in the fantasy world. He pleads with her saying he has a wife at home, to which she replies that’s exactly why she kills him: to free his bride. 

Which, according to the logic of the haunting of Ana by her tormentor, should be a watershed moment for her, but it seems like just another kill for Marsha. One done more for the sake of allegory instead of character development. If not, it doesn’t make sense, except if we take the entire fantasy world as a kind of The Wizard of Oz (1939), with everyone just there as part of Ana’s dreamworld. But then, why does Marsha get her own private scenes? These two kills are the only ones which are deliberately drawn out, and done up close and personal, which would suggest that they are both significant. But with their physical likeness and vague hints in the dialogue being the only backstory of any of these characters, as you pointed out, it all remains too abstract. 

And sure, fantasy and dreams don’t really need such logic, but by rooting this fantasy so firmly in ‘reality’ at the same time, a bit more sense beyond vague ideas not followed through to any logical conclusions on would be nice. I don’t mind mixing real life with whimsy, but this particular mix, despite all the fantastical elements, lacks the imagination to really satisfy either as pure fantasy or as an allegory for real-life issues. I don’t think Cinorre is so much hedging her bets as she wants both the fun of the fantasy and the real-life implications and complications of that fantasy, but fails to make everything work together, making the latter part of the film underwhelming, indeed

Mayday (2021)

ST: I guess this is what debut films are for, to get out all of the images and metaphors you’ve been holding onto for most of your life. But this is still a heartening film because I think given a crazier budget and a tighter idea, Cinorre could become an excellent big-budget filmmaker, because she certainly knows how to direct a gesture and a group of people, to say nothing of a dance. As my first Sundance film I think this is a pretty good indication of the kinds of things that get in: long on imaginative set-ups and plot ideas, short on follow-through. An album with one or two good tracks. I’ll remember those songs, but I’ll be mentally skipping the rest of the record when I want to listen to them.

This Conversations International Film Festival Rotterdam Sundance article was published in February 2021