The themes are pointed, the poetic and shimmering visuals are seamless in an intrepid view of creativity, reductive materialism and femininity in A Critically Endangered Species, thoughtfully directed and written by Zachery Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak. This narrative feature in its World Premiere at SXSW presents the conundrum of how to confront the evanescence of pastoral beauty, vitality, and artistic genius when the encroaching forces of crass mercantilism and scientific reductionism threaten to obliterate it.
The questions about how we approach our own mortality abound in this film. Do you go head to head and conquer by defining your own victorious soul parameters? Do you escape and run into forgetfulness and dementia embracing unreality while losing the race? Do you succumb to hopelessness and purposelessness in a bitter regret softened by addictions and the misery of a mortal illness?
For renowned and aging writer Maya, played by the exquisite, luscious, and affectively sensitive Lena Olin, the answer lies in preservation and magnification in a final statement of empowerment: suicide with a unique, innovative twist. When Maya announces on a live radio talk show that she is ending her life and it is not a cry for help or victimhood, we question her deeper motives which she reveals is not sickness, but an affirmation of her brilliant and successful writing career and the sum total of her life upon which she will place her own exclamation point. In a few succinct words delivered with clipped precision, Olin’s Maya avers that she will not decline in a series of increasingly mediocre works until she fades into a “once was.”
To embrace the next phase of her life, she will prepare for a talented young,male writer to inherit her estate, publishing rights, and perhaps a place in literary history. She requires this young man to be interviewed (it is more like an audition), and bring writing samples and/or publications where his work may be found. He will have to have enough confidence to believe his talent is exceptional and he is worthy and deserving to join the literary pantheon of writers to which Maya belongs and that the position promises.
Olin’s Maya is too controlled and powerful for us to suspect whether she is or isn’t serious. She already has a successful career and her decision to go out “with an explosion” we gradually understand as enforcing her own being and will against the inexorable. That she has elected to pass her legacy on to an exceptional writer of promise, we also accept because success has aligned her with this privilege of choice to be charitable: she has no family and no children and this remembrance of her work and suicide will be an incident of “forever.”
Her indifference about effecting her own death and her ironic humor as she discusses why she requires men (she doesn’t like women’s writing, affirming that Virginia Woolf and George Eliot were “men”), places her in this category of great writers in her own presumption. We cannot imagine that she might ever be a base romance writer or popular mystery writer; she is a literary exceptional. Thus the title is doubly reinforced; she is an endangered species metaphorically. Her election of suicide as a means to an end, passing the mantle to another as well as insuring that the right individual will himself achieve his own greatness while preserving hers, is likened to a rebirth or regeneration.
The central focus of the film is Maya’s auditioning for the part of the promising young poet/writer and executor and heir of her estate. As each young man is interviewed, with feline intensity, Maya senses their weaknesses and strengths and pushes their boundaries to get past their pretensions and veneers and obvious desire for the money and job. She assesses their sense of self and worthiness and how weak they are with allowing themselves to be prostituted for the position.
With some the interview is a game; she engages them in a sexual dance and no one objects when she requests they perform oral sex on her, even as she asks what they think of her appearance and beauty as an older woman. With those who do not appeal to her, there is no repeat performance, no second or third level to their interview. And with others there is no sexual dance; there is only the concern about their writing. We get the sense that Maya is practiced at understanding men who are easy for her to control and discern. Perhaps that contributes to the reason why no woman is up for this job as executor. Perhaps women would be able to game her and she might not be as astute about how to manipulate them. It is obvious she is assured of herself around men.
Within the list of interviewees, there are two intriguing individuals who may possibly make the cut: Paul (the sensual, seething and dangerous Alexander Koch), and Ansel (Nathan Keyes is sensitive, tormented, and emotionally guarded). In Maya’s manipulation, questioning and developing relationship with both as they return again and again, portraits emerge; we understand who will not squander the responsibility of her legacy and who will evolve as a writer. We also learn the profound nature of what Maya demands of herself and of them and of the sense of lost beauty and a hope of renewal which she will never realize again for herself. Indeed, we understand how and why she has come to this determination for her future and find that she has tremendous courage in making such a decision when the easier way just might be to revert to forgetfulness or live a life of lies in fantasy and deceptions, not difficult for a certain kind of writer.
The themes and conceptualizations of the film are heady and the script including the poetry written by the characters Ansel (in a very fine performance by the gentle, perspicacious Nathan Keyes), and Maya correlates with the visuals of hummingbirds, the misted mornings, trees and scenic views and twilights and the sailboat perched in the middle of a field, landlocked, a symbol for Maya’s life and perhaps her work.
We become fascinated by the interplay, the push and pull between and among Maya, Ansel, and Paul and become involved in figuring out who will be the one she chooses. There is also a fascinating performance and a few scenes of tension with Maya’s neighbor and friend Leonora, played by Rosanna Arquette, whom Maya has let in on her secret. The conversations between and among the characters are rich, intense, intimate, and meaningful. All are well wrought and engage us thanks to the fine acting and direction.
The rich symbolism coheres even to the characterization and the interior of Maya’s personality and soul: the delicate porcelains, the valuable antiques infer the fragility of her artistry and her cultural acumen. Such substance will eventually not be appreciated at all in the pop culture and technograndeur of a hyper-paced society; it will be only known to elites. The filmmakers use the inner set of Maya’s house and her ceramics and antiques also as a contrast with the outer environs of the rolling hills and landscape which also represent Maya and the living relationship and bond she is creating with her eventual executor.
The tie in with nature symbolizes an eternal component which represents Maya’s desires and the whole of who she is and what her writing is most likely about. These elements of setting are fitting backdrops for the poetry recited. They provide the visual metaphors which embody the themes. Along with the music, the cinematography and editing all combine to make a unique and memorable film with very fine performances. The charismatic Olin, the pivotal character that encapsulates the themes, is simply perfect.