A heartbreakingly heartfelt piece of high pitch that pokes real human drama out of the stuff of tabloid sensationalism, Todd Haynes’ delightful ‘May December’ continues the director’s tradition of making films that rely on self-awareness that seems to elude their characters – especially the ones played by Julianne Moore.
Here, the actress reunites with her “Safe” director to play Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a former school teacher who became a household name in 1992 when she left her ex-husband for one of her students at 13 years. It’s now 2015, things have somewhat normalized, and Gracie and Joe (a Charles Melton board dad) have been together long enough that their youngest children are about to graduate high school. The occasional poop-filled package still arrives at the Savannah beachfront mansion that Gracie and Joe paid for with “Inside Edition” appearances, but such deliveries—gifts from random strangers who can’t stand the romance of the couple – have become less common now that their scandalous romance has settled into suburban reality. Or so it would seem.
Alas, the past isn’t quite ready to loosen its grip on these crazy kids, and Gracie doesn’t have the good sense to keep it at arm’s length. Despite her celebrity skepticism — the result of an unspecified meeting with Judge Judy — Gracie decides to roll out the welcome mat for aspiring TV actress Elizabeth Berry, played by Natalie Portman (phenomenal on pointe in a ruthless performance who appears to be dressed in some sort of “Closer” disguise). Elizabeth is the same age as Gracie when she first had sex with Joe in the back of a pet store, and is set to play her in an upcoming independent film about the scandal.
Whether it’s a part of her process or simply a byproduct of her insecurities about creating a character from scratch, Elizabeth is eager to study every inch of Gracie’s existence in preparation for the role. Even Daniel Day-Lewis would probably have questions about the degree to which Elizabeth insinuates herself into the life of the Atherton-Yoo family. One minute she’s asking Gracie how she met her husband, the next she’s visiting Joe in secret at the hospital where she works as an X-ray technician, and she purrs at her for her own ability to see through of him.
When Elizabeth volunteers for a Q&A session at Gracie’s daughter’s high school drama class, where she answers a giggling teenager’s question about sex scenes with a knowingly seductive monologue about how lines can blur between an actor and their part (“Am I pretend to feel pleasure, or I pretend to be Not pleasure?”), it’s clear that Moore is about to undergo her most intense ordeal since “Vanya on 42nd Street.”
Written by Samy Burch, whose screenplay appears to have been crafted by Haynes into a catty dark comedy that delves into his longtime obsession with performance while poking fun at the kind of actresses he clearly loves so much, ‘May December’ presents like a piece of minimalism thrown somewhere between ‘All About Eve’ and ‘Persona’. The average scene might take place over the course of a barren long shot in Gracie’s kitchen that – hilariously – ends with her looking inside the refrigerator and declaring “I don’t have enough hot dogs!” while Michel Legrand’s dramatic theme from “The Go-Between” hammers the score with the force of 1,000 soap operas. Or it could be set in the dead-quiet restaurant bathroom where Gracie and Elizabeth stand side by side at the sink and stare directly into Christopher Blauvelt’s camera as they gaze at everything but their own reflection. For every sideways laugh, there’s a carefully posed shot of Natalie Portman obscured by a mannequin or flanked by two copies of her co-star in a trifold mirror.
Haynes’ tonal playfulness has sometimes been overshadowed by the unerring coherence of his emotional textures, but here, in the funniest and least “stylised” of his films, it is easier than ever to appreciate his genius for using artifice as a vehicle in truth. The interplay between the various modes he toggles in “May December” may not be as dynamic as those in “Poison” or as startling as those in “Wonderstruck,” but never has Haynes swerved between them to such amusing effect, either made the conversation between them so readable in the process.
Gracie might think her studied lack of shame indicates that she is Above the complications of starting a new family with a seventh grader (Moore’s shark-eyed smile peeks out as she casually mentions that her son and grandson are both in the same grade at school), but her cheerfulness “everyone has skeletons in their closet, eat a piece of pineapple upside down cake!” the attitude tells Elizabeth otherwise. Likewise, Gracie isn’t blind to the fact that Elizabeth couldn’t even put money in a parking meter without acting like she wants to fuck him—she builds sexual tension with her literally everyone meets, up to and including the minor She she walks past in slow motion in the corridor of a high school, but the actress herself does not seem to understand the insecurity it might convey to an observer, or to have any awareness that Haynes is gradually shifting the weight of her critical attention to her own.
If Elizabeth’s mission to question everyone in Gracie’s life makes the first half of “May December” feel like some sort of method actor “Spotlight,” the buried emotions she digs up along the way ultimately force her back into the spotlight. No one in this film is able to look at themselves, which is one of the reasons why one has such perverse fun making one’s judgements. Who is this strange woman secretly miming being raped on the same pet store staircase where Gracie and Joe first had sex, and why is it so important to her to understand every little nuance of her character? Is her attraction to Joe genuine or parasitic, and will she screw her over if and when the process of studying Gracie’s life begins to change her forever?
The various questions that “May December” raises while unsettling pretty much everyone through it all lead back to the one Elizabeth is asked in that acting class: “How do you choose your roles?” Joe, who was forced into his future with Gracie when he was just 13, never had much to say about the role he was to play. Melton gives a well-paced and ultimately quite moving performance as a stunted man-child who is somehow younger than his own children.
Any Haynes film has few lines that snap into your heart like an ice pick, and none in “May December” are more startling than when Joe turns to his son in the middle of a conversation and blurts out, “I don’t know if are we connecting or am I creating a bad memory for you.It’s a painfully honest confession from any parent to their child, but here it doubles as an out-of-body experience for someone who – with a nudge from his wife’s replacement – is reconsidering his casting for the first time in his adult life.
Joe’s obsession with butterflies might seem a little over the top, but what it means to emerge from a chrysalis has rarely been more complicated than it is here. “May December” is a film in which one of the female leads protects her ingenuity like a sacred relic (Moore is predictably sensational, her soft-hard performance balances Gracie on a tightrope between infantile fragility and matriarchal ferocity), while the the other possesses the power to be reborn with each set-up. It’s nearly impossible for most of us to start over, unlike on a movie set where it’s never hard to find a clean slate. Self-reflection is unnecessary when you can always start over. And after you get the shot, there might even be enough time to grab a bonus shot for safety. Or as Elizabeth might say: “Just for me.”
“May December” premiered in competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.