In the opening scene of the film, Lena Olin, playing the title role, is speaking on the phone to an unnamed associate. She is an attractive, mature woman, a famous poet, and she lives alone on her California estate in the mountains. She says that, rather than suffer a further loss of her powers, she has decided to kill herself. She says that she is not ill, but is doing this after much soul-searching. She has no family or heirs. She then tells the associate to send her applicants for the position of executor of her estate, who will become her sole heir. The position will also entail providing assistance in her final act, which will mostly involve, rather inscrutably, literary skill. Most important, however, is that the applicants be poets themselves, and that they must be male because she doesn’t trust how women write. They should send samples of their poetry, and will be interviewed individually, in her home.
Writers-directors Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak certainly know how to open their film in an intriguing way. But it is misleading in one important aspect: you would think that the story will explore the themes of poetry and death. Instead, it becomes a psychological study of a woman obsessed with sex and power.
A number of poets are interviewed, and this takes up the first third of the film. Maya asks tough, intrusively personal questions of them, which they struggle with amusingly. They also struggle, with varying degrees of success, with her demand for proof of their talent for oral sex. She then tells them to leave, she’ll notify the successful candidate.
But there are only two poets who are granted return visits, and the rest of the film deals with their rivalry for her favors. Paul, played by Alexander Koch, is bold, candid and unapologetic. He doesn’t think his poetry is any good, but she’s going to be glad to have him around. When he sees that the qualifications include sex, he makes sure to exceed her expectations. Specifically, he rapes her, in what is certainly the most memorable scene in the film. It is also startlingly non-PC, and is likely to be controversial.
The other poet, Ansel, played by Nathan Keyes, is the total opposite. Shy, sensitive, very insecure about his talent, he is also the only one to have qualms about assisting in her suicide, whatever that might entail. Still, he knows that the job is likely to bring major attention to his poetry, which is enough to still his qualms.
While the filmmakers have a knowing way with dialogue that exposes vanity and pretension, both male and female, it soon becomes clear that their love of poetry is only incidental to their main concern, which is to titillate the audience with sex and contrived melodrama. While they may actually have a deep love of poetry – unlike Darren Aronofsky’s totally feigned interest in ballet in Black Swan – most of the literary talk was just name-dropping. With one exception: I liked that Maya criticizes Ansel for the use of “blue schism” in a poem, which incenses him enough to compare it, wishfully, to Hart Crane.
Sometimes the camerawork gets a little “arty” with unneeded swoons into California’s natural beauty (“look, hummingbirds in flight!”), but this is minor. It is generally well-photographed and smoothly directed. And there is one inspired conceit. On a walk with Maya, Ansel finds a long, white tube of cloth. He asks Maya to stick her head in one end while he, from the other end, speaks to her. Each speaker’s face is shown, partially hidden, surrounded by gleaming whiteness. As a visual trope, it makes a fitting metaphor for the oddness of their relationship. At any rate, none of the film’s spoken poetry is as memorable.
But, on the whole, the major problem is the characters themselves. Ansel is just a timid twit, while Paul, though played with double-edged charm by Alexander Koch, is a rather ordinary pervert, but both come off better than Maya, who is, frankly, loathsome. Lena Olin is a very fine actress, with a still alluring Scandinavian face, but it was obvious from the beginning that we were in for a slow, superficially clever unmasking of a pretentious and sadistic phony. In all, not a pleasant experience.
The final scene has Ansel reading aloud from his dead-on assessment of Maya’s character flaws and pretensions. Maybe now he’ll have some free time to work on his own.