Film Review: Maya Dardel

Overblown, monotonous story about a manipulative poet who plans to commits suicide and seeks an executor.
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The creative team behind Maya Dardel believes it’s saying something significant. But simply because a film has pretentions doesn’t mean a greater truth is being revealed. Maya Dardel is shot in semi-darkness; its barely audible dialogue is delivered without affect; and its screenplay is brimming with pseudo-intellectualism. Narrative drive is nonexistent.

That said, the idea of a heroine who is a highly educated, complex, mature woman grappling with issues of mortality sounds promising. We virtually never see a complicated, cerebral woman onscreen, let alone one of “a certain age.” Mike Nichols’ 2001 TV movie Wit, based on Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a terminally ill English professor, is the only film that I can come up with that even comes close.

Writers-directors Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak were onto something at least in theory, and casting the always impressive Lena Olin to play Maya, the power-hungry poet who’s into mind games, was inspired. But that’s where the good news ends and the credibility-defying story begins.

Living alone in an isolated, ramshackle old house in the Santa Cruz Mountains (the scenery is nice), internationally recognized writer Maya Dardel announces on National Public Radio that she intends to end her life because her work is no longer good and anything she writes in the future will be even worse. She’s seeking young male writers to compete to become the executor and inheritor of her estate. She doesn’t much care for women writers, she says, adding flatly—in an attempt to be witty—that George Eliot wasn’t really a woman and neither was Susan Sontag. Within short order, a motley crew of boyish authors, mostly talent-free and self-aggrandizing, are lining up to give her competition a shot.

Among other challenges, Maya asks them to honestly assess their own work and her desirability as a woman. In several instances she demands they satisfy her sexually. She feels free to humiliate them with all sorts of personal questions, all the while debating trends in literature and art in a postmodern world. Existentialist themes abound, especially when she launches into a lofty discussion about three fictional characters, all from discrete walks of life, attempting to interpret a Jackson Pollock.

Maya loves flexing her muscles with impunity, though what any of this has to do with her alleged end game is unclear. After a stream of interviews, the two finalists—a goodhearted innocent (Nathan Keyes) and a slick and sexy operator (Alexander Koch)—are brought together in her home to vie for the big prize that has become increasingly ambiguous. But by that time, it’s of no interest anyway.

The cast also includes Maya’s wack-a-doodle neighbor (Rosanna Arquette), who shoots off a rifle from time to time for no discernible reason. Maya says the Second Amendment should only apply to women. Skewed is the operative aesthetic here. A landlocked boat sits on the property and Maya hosts tea parties on a shabby sofa housed in the forest. At home, her vases are filled with dying flowers and one wall features a painting made with the blood and brain matter of a late friend who committed suicide.

It goes on and on. Maya Dardel is cruel and unusual punishment—I thought that was unconstitutional.

Click here for cast and crew information.