Director Todd Haynes’ latest film, May December, is a provocative, engrossing, and unnerving avalanche of mixed feelings. While Haynes has never showed a shyness when it comes to pushing boundaries, pressing buttons, and asking his audience tough, often cheeky questions about the darker undercurrents of attraction and the nature of neuroticism, May December is one of the finest examples of how the director is able to make the audience squirm while simultaneously entertaining them and forcing a lot of deep, introspective thought. It’s material pitched at such a stylistically obvious tone that it’s meant to provoke visceral reactions, but May December is so elegantly and smartly composed by a master filmmaker that those reactions will be constantly changing throughout the course of the movie. It’s kinda funny, kinda nasty, weirdly heartfelt, and entirely one of Haynes’ absolute best.
Actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) is travelling to Savannah, Georgia to do research on her latest role. Elizabeth, who’s still remembered best for a television series that she would like to put in her rearview mirror, is going to spend some time with Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and her husband, Joe (Charles Melton). In the early 90s, Grace made tabloid headlines when she went to prison for engaging in a sexual relationship with Joe, an employee at the pet store where she was a manager. At the time, Joe was still in the seventh grade, and Gracie was pregnant with his child when she was convicted and sent to prison. Now, they live a somewhat normal life (outside of some occasional threats and stares), and their two youngest kids are about to head off to university. Elizabeth spends time with Elizabeth and Joe, picking at old wounds to better get into character, and interviewing people who know them best, picking up a lot of conflicting information about who they are as individuals and the nature of their relationship.
The script for May December, courtesy of writer Samy Burch (whose background is primarily in casting), is one of the year’s most richly astute and intricately composed, following two different paths that are interlocking in creative, explorative ways. The story of Gracie and Joe’s relationship is obviously rife with scandal, ethical issues, and moral complexities, but by and large the worst parts of their struggles are in the past, and the life they share together looks normal on the surface. It’s only when layers of their outwardly happy family life are pulled back that the viewer gets to see all the old cracks and new ones that are starting to form and fester. Their love for one another is both genuine and out of touch with reality, even when one looks past their sizeable age difference and the criminal nature of their early relationship. But in the present, cracks are starting to form. Gracie’s emotional instability and paranoia leads to depressive breakdowns. Their kids seemingly can’t wait to get as far away from the parents as possible. And for what might be the first time in his life, Joe is starting to question his decisions, entering a mid-life crisis of sorts while he’s still in his mid-30s.
For her part, both as part of the movie she’s prepping for and as an interloper in Gracie and Joe’s relationship, Elizabeth is just as hard to pin down. She’s doing her due diligence and homework as a performer, but there are many indications that she’s largely made her mind up about how she’s going to portray Gracie, and unless something revelatory comes up, nothing is going to sway her preconceptions. The only thing that could change her opinion is spending time with Joe, because the more she hears from Gracie’s friends, family, her lawyer, her ex-husband, and her troubled son from a previous marriage, the more her suspicions seem to be confirmed rather than rebuffed. She seems to be researching Joe more than she is Gracie. While she’s clearly listening and processing her findings, there’s not much work being done that isn’t self-serving or affirming. She’s picking at other people’s scabs without processing the consequences.
Haynes (Safe, Carol, Far From Heaven) pushes May December as far as it can into the realm of full blown, classical melodrama (flashy reveals, obvious foreshadowing, several conversations that revolve around bombshell revelations) without ever crossing the line into outright campiness. May December is an unusually loud film, boosted by a playful, patently unsubtle, piano heavy score from Marcelo Zavros that gleefully leans into his notes with less of a trowel and more of a steamroller. It’s meant to be humorous, and it certainly works to take the edge off of what’s an otherwise awkward situation to watch unfold. It scores every scene perfectly because Haynes wants to keep the viewer invested in the lives of morally and ethically dubious people, and the only way to do that is through the script and score’s carefully executed sense of humour. The viewer will laugh because they’re glad they aren’t going through this, and shudder because Haynes is fostering a curious, but pointed sense of understanding throughout May December. The result is an amusing, sometimes bleak character study, crossed with a satirical examination of the sort of trashy, pulpy “ripped from the headlines” fictions some audiences can’t get enough of.
May December moves quicker than many of Haynes’ previous films, but paradoxically he isn’t in a hurry to get to any sort of neat conclusion or closure. The eeriness and otherness on screen is experiential for all parties involved, but none of these people are rushing to get things over with, each of them trying to hang onto their last bits of happiness and joy, if they even existed in the first place. (An argument could be credibly made that Elizabeth is even more melancholic and less together than the frequently crying Gracie.) Haynes wants viewers to see that these people wear their secrets on their sleeves. Even if the person across the table or on the other end of the phone don’t know what’s going on, the viewer can see and understand the unseen weight dragging them down.
Moore, Portman, and Melton are a dream team for Haynes, with the two veteran actresses turning in stellar, memorable performances, and their still up and coming male co-star giving one of the best turns of the year in any film. Moore plays Gracie as a woman who tries to be honest with people, but only up to a point. There’s a lot happening on the surface, but in private, she’s prone to breaking down and dropping the confidence she’s worked so hard to present to the world. Gracie isn’t good or evil in Moore’s eyes, but rather a unique, singular human being that’s equally capable of unconditional love and controlling manipulation. Portman could’ve played Elizabeth as just another entitled actor looking for fuel to add to any future acclaim they might receive for taking “daring” roles, but she turns the character into something closer to an undercover cop who has gone too deeply into her assignment. Portman creates a portrait of a performer that has unwittingly hypnotized themself. And both work outstandingly opposite Melton’s shattered, sheltered, and stunted husband. His is a star making performance in every sense of that overused term; a character so full bodied, yet internalized that he serves as the calming, sympathetic eye in Haynes’ melodramatic tornado.
May December has a lot on its mind, arguably too much, but that’s also part of the melodramatic charm. It’s not only about relationships that exist outside the standards of law and taste, or how performers sometimes unfairly mine tragedy for their own personal gains, but the longer Haynes talks things out and parses what’s being said between the lines, May December slowly turns into an inquiry into what lessons each generation can pass onto the next one. The pivot from the salacious to the sincere happens so gradually and seamlessly that one barely notices it happening. Haynes might be operating at a higher pitch and in a heavily stylized fashion, but his filmmaking abilities and the talent of his cast ensures that there isn’t a moment in May December that doesn’t feel true to the experiences, fears, and loves of its characters. By the end of the film, viewers likely won’t have their minds changed about the relationship at the core of all this, but they will be pondering the bigger questions about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness and recognition that naturally arise from the material. Haynes knows what the big question is here. He’s just more interested with the ones no one pays attention to.
May December opens in select theatres – including TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, where it will be screening on 35mm film – on Friday, November 17, 2023. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting December 1.
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