Bloodlust“Mayday” Is a Brutal, Irresistible Feminist Revenge Fantasy

Four young women are laying in grass, surrounded by trees, learning how to shoot. The one with red hair and the one Asian woman are pointing sniper guns.

Mia Goth, Grace Van Patten, Soko, and Havana Rose Liu in Mayday. (Photo credit: Tjaša Kalkan / Magnolia Pictures)

A question that women—not all women, but probably more than men might guess—sometimes ask themselves is, “If I could kill the men who have harmed me and not suffer any consequences, would I?” This question has likely been on women’s minds more in the years both during and after the Trump administration. So writer-director Karen Cinorre’s debut feature film, Mayday (which opened in theaters and started streaming on October 1), feels timely.

The main character, Ana (Grace Van Patten, who played the art student in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories), is an abused waitress. During a mighty thunderstorm, she opens one of the ovens in the catering hall where she works and crawls inside. There she finds the entrance to an alternate reality. Set in what seems like World War II Europe, the movie centers a small band of women, led by the gleefully homicidal Marsha (a great Mia Goth), who are ruthless soldiers. They live in a beached U-boat on a woodsy Mediterranean island (Mayday was filmed in Croatia on the Adriatic coast) and battle any male soldiers who attempt to invade. Much like the sirens from Greek myths, the group lures sailors within radio range into charted storms and, ultimately, to their deaths. They use a hypnotic murmur to communicate false distress, repeating “Mary, Alpha, Yankee, Delta, Alpha, Yankee,” a nod to the film’s title. Marsha tells Ana their tone should never be loud or assertive, to better entrap the men. It works every time.

Some of these men we’ve seen abuse Ana, some we recognize but know they caused her no harm, and some she knew and liked in her previous life. Similarly, some of the women she meets in earlier scenes appear later as completely different characters, reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz. Marsha first appears as the young crying bride who pleads for help from Ana in the catering hall.

Embracing this new universe, Ana trains to be a sharpshooter. Like a yoga teacher turned assassin, Marsha lies beside Ana, instructing her to slow down her breathing to hit the target. Ana is delighted to find she’s great at it. Marsha is something of an all-seeing oracle, saying of the old life, “You never had a chance back there, Ana.”

“A chance for what?” Ana asks.

“A chance to win.”

At first, the men who land on the island after being shot down address the women they encounter as, “nurse,” unable to see them as anything but beings to help and heal them. The men patronize the women, even as they ask for assistance: the pilot who comes out of the water, wondering where he is and how he will get back to his men, tells Ana to snap out of her state of shock after she had nearly drowned. The sullen, young bridegroom from the catering hall is transformed into an earnest and gravely wounded paratrooper who asks “nurse” Marsha (his unhappy bride in the early scenes) to get word to his wife that he loves her. “You sure about that?” Marsha asks as she brusquely steals his valuables and weapons, causing him more pain before she ends his life.

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“Where are we?” asks Ana.

“Where we belong,” answers Marsha.

The island could be an afterlife, a dream, or a parallel universe. Gert (French singer Soko) and Ana discuss the first possibility openly, as they trade stories of how they ended their old lives. Cinorre understands any alternate reality suffers from being completely explained, so the film takes on the logic and emotional impact of a dream.

Unlike fantasies where everything turns out great without any disillusion or dissatisfaction, Ana’s adventure—where she seems at first to have found her place, her peers, and her purpose—suddenly becomes fraught and unsafe. Taking the narrative a step further, Cinorre highlights a source of frustration that many of us, especially those from historically marginalized groups, have felt: “supportive” feminist spaces that still reinforce and perpetuate the very oppression their members have tried to escape. Fighting and killing men becomes just another shitty job for Ana, and the person in charge, this time a woman (Marsha), is out to harm her. Even Ana’s uniform is the same color as her old waitress outfit. As the film progresses, killing disgusts Ana instead of thrilling her as it did in the beginning (when, for example, Marsha has her foot on the neck of Ana’s abuser while she taunts him with the words he once said to Ana). She seems to have found, as Toni Morrison wrote, that “hate … burns off everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.” Revenge fantasies, even feminist ones, rarely ask what this one does: “Do we really want to become like the men who abuse us just to avenge what they’ve done?” Although this attack of conscience might feel like it’s ruining the fun for some of the audience, I liked that this film tries to dive deeper into what might happen after all the men you want to kill are dead.

“Mayday” gives audiences the actual violent revenge they expected from a film like “Promising Young Woman.”

Still, Mayday is one of the most cathartic feminist action movies made since Thelma & Louise. For a little while at least, it has the excitement of turning the tables on abusive men that the film Freeway (which helped make Reese Witherspoon a star) had. Cinorre uses a wide range of cultural references: the sirens whose call causes men at sea to die in shipwrecks (the compelling soundtrack, mostly by Colin Stetson, includes a siren song from Caroline Shaw); the dancers in the Matisse painting whom the women resemble as they float on the surface of the sea in a linked circle; and the pulling down of the oven door, bringing to mind Sylvia Plath, for one last escape. In an interview with the Observer, Cinorre confirms how Ancient Greek mythology heavily influenced her, especially when she was a child: “I had never seen women characters like that. I had never seen or read about women who were that powerful, unapologetic, relentless, mysterious, had crazy things happen to them, and were carried off in a chariot to the sky. It was like I finally found this world that I didn’t know existed.”

Even the gorgeous shots of the sea and land echo those stories. Director of photography Sam Levy (Cinorre’s husband, who also worked on Ladybird) and the inventive production design (Cinorre cut her teeth working on sets and props) keep the audience transfixed throughout the film’s turns of fancy, like during a hallucinatory dance interlude set to Liberace’s version of  “Love is Blue”(!).

Four young women in shorts and t-shirts float next to each other as they lay on tires in the ocean. Their eyes are closed and they've linked hands and legs to stay together.

Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, Havana Rose Liu and Soko in Mayday. (Photo credit: Tjaša Kalkan / Magnolia Pictures)

Finally, Mayday gives audiences the actual violent revenge they expected from a film like Promising Young Woman, instead of its anticlimactic speeches and fatalistic ending. One Twitter user said of the movie, “I wanted to see men die,” and though the trailer sets up that expectation, Promising Young Woman doesn’t deliver. Instead, we see (spoiler alert) the title character die and her body disposed of in an incredibly grim, protracted way. It became yet another dead girl trope—the only difference being that the dead girl is the main character, instead of “Slasher Victim #2.” Unlike other feminist revenge fantasies, we never see the abuse Ana is subjected to in Mayday; we aren’t acting as voyeurs watching the violence she experiences (except for some brief battle fights). This trend of not making audiences complicit, while still acknowledging that abuse against women and girls exists, is one that I hope continues: Salvadoran Mexican writer-director Tatiana Huezo’s excellent Prayers for the Stolen, which will soon be on Netflix, does something similar. In her narrative film, the girl characters are in nearly constant danger, but we do not see them as victims of violence.

Mayday is not a perfect film: only one woman of color, Bea (Havana Rose Liu), is in the band of fighters, and she’s naive and childlike with her hair tied in pigtails. She’s the one the other women feel they need to protect, but that doesn’t stop Marsha from using her as bait for enemy men as she’s motivating Ana to kill them. It’s one of the only scenes that gives viewers that familiar sickly feeling you get when anticipating that a woman is about to be tortured and killed. The ending is also unsatisfactory; Ana decides that her previous life might improve and that she doesn’t want to “win,” which seems like the kind of compromise the old Ana would settle for. But unlike Ana, I wanted to stay on that island, and in Mayday’s world, forever. 

 

by Ren Jender
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Ren Jender (@renjender) is a queer writer-performer and filmmaker whose writing has been published in The New York Times, on NPR, and in Slate.