Myths often attempt to place structure on things humanity considers inexplicable, and for some reason, women have often been placed in that category. Misogyny has shaped religious and cultural belief around the world, turning mythological women into figures of fear and catastrophe. Pandora’s curiosity causes her to open a box that unleashes evil and despair into a previously innocent world. Horrific figures like the succubus and the gello are tied up in masculine fear of female sexuality and societal expectations of female fertility, respectively. And sirens have long been positioned as duplicitous figures who turn men’s supposedly natural tendency for protection and assistance against them, luring sailors to their deaths. Will no one think of the poor beleaguered dudes surrounded by female predators?!
Karen Cinorre’s indie fantasy movie Mayday is aware of the calamities that fables often tie to women, and it deliberately positions itself in conversation with that tension. Narratively and thematically similar to Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, but without the male gaze (or the teeny-tiny outfits) that Sucker Punch used as stylish bombast, Mayday also focuses on a young woman struggling against abuse and objectification. After she tumbles into what seems like an alternate world, she joins a group of others who have banded together against men. In a modernized version of a siren song, they lure sailors and pilots in with a radio distress signal. They pose as hapless girls who need help. And when the would-be white knights arrive to lend a helping hand, they’re like fish in a barrel.
There’s a ton of narrative potential to Mayday, and to the idea of a fantastical spin on the tried-and-true action setup of women getting revenge against men. (This summer has certainly seen an array of straightforward riffs on this formula: Gunpowder Milkshake, Jolt, The Protégé, Kate.) Mayday had a whole compass of directions in which it could expand and elaborate. What brought the women to this place? What are its geographical limits? Have the women traveled back or forward in time? What are conversations like with their comrades around the world, and how do they strategize for a never-ending gender war? What is their long-term endgame? What does a world look like without men?
So it’s a disappointment when Mayday instead sticks to a narrow, character-driven plot rather than indulging in the worldbuilding necessary to contextualize the fantasy. In an unnamed coastal city at a vaguely mid-century time, Ana (Grace Van Patten) works as a server at a wedding venue. The job is demanding. She only has one friend, her coworker Dimitri (Théodore Pellerin). And she’s being harassed and abused by a higher-up. In a devastatingly sparse moment, Ana heads into the kitchen’s walk-in freezer, and her boss follows and corners her. The scene is already oppressively uncertain, thanks to cinematographer Sam Levy keeping the audience’s perspective outside of the room, and Ana’s pleading “No!”, heard when the man opens and closes the door, only makes it worse.
But vicious men are the norm in Mayday. The venue’s chef tells her with a sneer, “The last girl didn’t make it.” The bride (Mia Goth) at the wedding Ana is working arrives in tears, thanks to her jerky, yelling groom. And the unfazed way that bathroom attendant June (Juliette Lewis) reacts to all this trauma is a telling sign of its own: “It feels like a nightmare. That’s normal,” she tells Ana and the bride. Living under the thumb of violent men seems like an inescapable, inevitable trap — until Ana is suddenly transported. With complementary blue and orange tints, flickering lights, and a Sylvia Plath-evoking journey through an oven and then an ocean, Cinorre crafts a dreamy sequence that brings to mind Alice falling into Wonderland.
When Ana surfaces, she’s on the front lines of an endless war, with each battle led by the charming, zealous Marsha (Goth again). With a cheery smile and unwavering moral certainty, Marsha introduces Ana to fellow young women Bea (Havana Rose Liu) and Gert (French musician and actress Soko), who all live together in an abandoned U-boat — and all band together to lure and kill men. They attract pilots and sailors with distress signals and then either lead them into storms, so their boats sink, or wait for them to parachute onto the beach, and shoot them. Ana can’t remember her previous life, and isn’t sure whether she’s dreaming or in the afterlife, but her new friends reassure her: “Girls are better off dead, because now we’re free.”
What the women are free to do, though, becomes repetitive quality fairly quickly (lure, shoot, repeat), and Mayday doesn’t do much to differentiate between these sequences. On one hand, this limited focus lets Van Patten and Goth’s performances take center stage, and Goth is particularly riveting: She’s always been good at conveying bitter anguish and ethical murkiness, from A Cure for Wellness to Suspiria to High Life. Marsha comes to vibrant, subversive life in Goth’s hands, particularly during a scene where she lazily lights a cigarette, sends out a mayday signal, jokes “We don’t have any” when the man she’s speaking with asks how many souls are aboard her vessel, listens to his vessel’s destruction after she sends him faulty coordinates, and then casually asks Ana, “Do you like the radio?” That daring, freewheeling bravado energizes Mayday, and a role playing a cult leader should materialize in Goth’s future.
On the other hand, Cinorre limits viewers’ understanding of these characters by skimping on the conditions that brought them here, and by rushing through the friction that eventually puts them at odds. Other elements also feel out of place (a scene that mimics 1950s-style musicals; a recurring bird motif), and Mayday frustrates any attempt at understanding by switching its focus from women fighting against men to women fighting among themselves. That latter approach, and how it leads to the faux “You go, girl!” energy of lines like “You fight like a girl!” isn’t as subversive as Cinorre might think. Still, Goth is a scene-stealer, and some of Levy’s visuals are memorable in their otherworldly quality. Cinorre’s initially provocative vision of vengeance at least makes Mayday worth a look.
Mayday opens in limited theatrical release and on VOD on October 1, 2021.