Like the Sirens of Greek mythology dolled up in Wes Anderson-esque Girl Scout uniforms, the four young women in Karen Cinorre’s stylish yet surface-level feminist fantasy “Mayday” lure off-screen soldiers to their deaths with invented pleas for help. “They can’t resist a lady in distress,” says Marsha (Mia Goth), coaching newcomer Ana (Grace Van Patten) on how to craft an enticing SOS call. “They like their girls softer, with less authority.”
Debuting at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, “Mayday” joins recent female-revenge fantasies “Promising Young Woman” and “Assassination Nation” in imagining a scenario where women are mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. Like those films, it’s simultaneously exhilarating and confused, in part because the patriarchy is too big a Goliath to be crippled by a single strident slingshot, no matter how accurate its aim. Still, it’s a thrill to see young filmmakers raging against the status quo, which clearly extends to the original way they launch their attacks, and “Mayday” marks a director to watch — even if her feature debut won’t necessarily be watched by many beyond the festival circuit.
Inspired by everything from “Lord of the Flies” to Lucile Hadžihalilović’s art-horror “Evolution,” Cinorre’s strong visual instincts come through from the moody, blue-tinged opening scene, as Ana sits in her car, listening to warnings of an approaching storm. She seems reluctant to go in to her restaurant job, where her boyfriend (Théodore Pellerin) is powerless to stop her manager (Frano Mašković) from cornering Ana in the walk-in freezer. As in “The Wizard of Oz” — another recognizable influence, which Cinorre upends by making her dream-world Dorothy a more active protagonist — this prologue establishes a handful of characters (including a welcome but underused Juliette Lewis) who will resurface on the other side.
To access the parallel universe where “Mayday” takes place, Ana must crawl through a gas oven in the restaurant’s kitchen, which makes for a striking image but, like so many of the movie’s details, one that isn’t quite coherent. Why an oven? What about this portal beckons Ana? And is an abrupt cut to her plunging into some distant ocean (the Adriatic Sea, actually, off the coast of Pula, Croatia) enough to communicate the radical shift in her reality, further confused by a convenient case of amnesia?
“Mayday” marks Cinorre’s first feature-length project, after working on music videos with cinematographer husband Sam Levy (on board as DP here) and various ambitious multimedia art projects, including Isabella Rossellini’s “Green Porno” (for which she handled art directing duties). Levy’s lensing can be breathtaking, almost distractingly so, in presenting an expressionistic environment — like the fantastical oases Benh Zeitlin imagined in “Wendy” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” — where the rules remain largely ill-defined.
While Cinorre’s background makes her exceptionally capable at world-building, she’s less successful at populating that stage, presenting Ana with what looks like an idyllic island paradise, where she meets a trio of resistance fighters: militant misandrist Marsha, right-hand woman Gert (French actor-singer Soko, stern as a young Selma Blair) and childlike aspiring aviator Bea (Havana Rose Liu). These three have set up camp in a rusted old U-boat washed ashore, from which they broadcast fake “mayday” signals.
It’s not at all clear how this ploy works, since Cinorre depicts the scam from the women’s perspective. They crowd around the makeshift mission control, while the voices of male soldiers, eager to play the hero, follow their coordinates. Now it’s the men’s turn to cry “mayday” as they encounter some kind of unseen disaster on the other side of the radio. All Cinorre shows of their fate is a kind of underwater ballet, as young men do somersaults beneath the surface.
In other cases, soldiers come precariously close to their beachfront camp — although time and geography are always a bit hazy in “Mayday.” One thing is clear: Men are unwelcome here. In Marsha’s eyes, all men are predators, if not outright rapists (essentially proving her right, Mašković, who played Ana’s boss in the opening, creeps up and wrestles her to the ground in one scene). Between whatever Ana has endured back home — visions of which return via dreams — and the predatory male behavior she experiences here, Ana is easily convinced by Marsha to become the team’s sniper.
Turns out she’s a natural, which is strange, since “Mayday” seems to depict a liminal space where real-world victims go for some much-needed self-defense training — a boot camp for battered women, where they learn the skills needed to take on their aggressors. “You’ve been in a war your entire life — you just didn’t know it,” explains Marsha, who’s charismatic but dangerous. Whereas most of the performances amount to little more than posing in environments, “Mayday” casts Goth as the extremist against whom Van Patten’s Ana must define her own values.
Now it’s Ana’s turn to decide whether to join these grrrl power guerrillas in their long-running battle of the sexes or to seize her newfound confidence and return to a world in which not all men are evil. “Mayday” means to be empowering in her choice, and it certainly ends on a note of solidarity and strength with Ana’s character, but the film’s internal logic doesn’t quite make sense. With no tension, no suspense and no dramatic engine behind this plunge through the looking glass, Cinorre’s film feels less like a narrative than an incredibly polished advertising campaign, its radical message co-opted to sell some high-end designer’s spring collection to budding young feminists.