MOVIE REVIEW: In "Maya Dardel," Lena Olin Plays A Woman Trying To Succeed In A Man's World

Trigger warning: this film contains discussions of suicide and depicts a rape.

There's a momentary shot in Maya Dardel (directed by Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak) that perfectly sums up the protagonist's opinion on the proceedings of the film: it's a snatched glance of a small mechanical toy that consists of small brassy balls moving around and around in an endless circle. It's a bit of a joke, because the majority of Maya Dardel consists of arrogant young men of the poetry or MFA persuasion coming to the title character's door, hoping to be chosen as the executor of her estate, only to be found wanting in some way and sent out again. The balls of the toy are especially synecdochical to Maya, since she demands that these young writers perform oral sex on her to prove their masculine worthiness and sexual prowess. Balls come in, balls go out, and so on, and so on, in a never-ending parade.

Maya Dardel, starring Lena Olin in a vastly under-seen (and therefore under-appreciated) performance, is a portrait of an indelible original character: a single, childless poet of late middle age who announces in an interview that she will be committing suicide, and invites any young man who believes himself to be a worthy writer to come audition for her, to see if she will choose him to be her heir and executor. It's a quest right out of a myth: the toweringly famous Maya lives, alone, in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California; the young men will make the pilgrimage to meet her, wherein she will test their resolve, their wit, and their sexual abilities, and ultimately enjoy herself at their expense with a little psychological torture, give or take.
"Why only men?" we assume the interviewer asks Maya on the phone, to which Maya replies that she doesn't like women's writing. Some Dickinson is acceptable, she amends. She continues by claiming (disingenuously) that Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, and George Eliot were men, and therefore, we assume, were properly talented writers.

Right away, then, we see how Maya Dardel becomes an illustration of what happens to a certain kind of woman--the inescapable "Cool Girl," if you will--when she is no longer young and appealing enough to be a girl. She is the girl who has played the men's game for so long that she doesn't know what to do with herself once she is no longer invited to play. As we've seen recently, the phenomenon of the female abettor of male misdeeds is not limited to any one field, and it's easy to imagine that once upon a time, Maya Dardel was happy to play that role--the role of the girl who has no female friends because girls are too catty/dramatic/et cetera, who disdains the women around her as overly-sensitive. She's all too happy to subscribe to notions of masculine versus feminine writing, with any writing worth reading obviously being the work of a man (even if they're Woolf, Sontag, and Eliot). While Maya clearly enjoys wielding intellectual and sexualized dominance over the young men who come to her door, she's the perfect example of the purposeful mistaking of individualized so-called "empowerment" with genuine respect, equal opportunity, and power. The women whose writing she categorically dismisses never stood a chance. She, alone, was the exception to the rule.

But now that she's aged, as she puts it, with "the last outer crust of [...] prettiness left," she believes the best work of her life, as well as her desirability, is already behind her. Thus, her near-rote seduction of each and every unwitting hopeful who comes through her door is an attempt for her to convince herself she still matters as a sexual being, that she still has a kind of authority, even if she will never write a good poem again. Ordering these men to perform sexually, and testing their worth based on their talents at oral sex, serves another purpose: she wants to re-convince herself of the primacy of masculinity, and that she hasn't spent her entire life quietly believing in that primacy, and playing along with it, for nothing.

Nearly every applicant who comes through Maya's door is his own amusing exaggeration of the over-educated writer who believes himself to be more talented than he is. To be fair, one young man (Orphan Black's Jordan Gavaris, unrecognizable) does manage to have interesting, highfalutin conversations with Maya about writing and the nature of art itself, providing us with something to enjoy (pseudo-)intellectually amid the half-hearted sexual acts. Ansel (Nathan Keyes), immediately stands out due to his thoughtful vulnerability; he alone ultimately wants to convince Maya not to end her life. Paul (Alexander Koch), emerges as a contender, and Ansel's foil, even though he casually rapes Maya after performing oral sex on her. (Maya remains largely unbothered by it, and even invites him over again him at a later date for further consideration.) Once we meet Maya's hardscrabble neighbor Leonora (Rosanna Arquette), the only person whom Maya considers a friend or equal, we wonder why Maya doesn't just make Leonora her executor--or rather, we don't wonder, since we know why, but we do despair.

At one point in the film, Maya tells an applicant exactly what she wants from her heir, saying, "I need someone who can defend the posthumous Maya against your type. They'll try to make me into unstable or hysterical or who knows what. They'll butcher my books, they'll rape my dead body. They'll turn me into Plath." The most excruciating scene in the film comes when Maya, sensing that Ansel has some unresolved issues regarding his mother, demands that he call her right then and there and tell her exactly what he's been telling Maya--every cruel thought about his mother, every complaint his childhood that he's voiced to Maya during their meetings--or he won't be in contention anymore. It's the ultimate test of Ansel's ability to "carry out a difficult task from beginning to end"--as Maya says in an earlier scene as a prelude to demanding oral sex--to see how far he will go to defend his own words and claims, and thus, how far he would go to defend Maya's.

In the end, Maya Dardel is notable as a showcase for Lena Olin's sharp-edged charisma, and for the keen way in which Maya literally embodies the consequences of the choices some women make while trying to succeed in a man's world. Perhaps it's not the most exciting or invigorating film, but as a thesis statement, it's certainly worthwhile.