2023, R, 113 min. Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Gabriel Chung, Elizabeth Yu, D.W. Moffett, Cory Michael Smith.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 17, 2023
A giant of independent film, Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Carol) is at home testing limits, subverting expectations. (He famously began his career with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, an underground film that used Barbie dolls in advancing states of decay to dramatize the singer/drummer's death from anorexia.) True to form, in making a movie about the aftereffects of a shocking act of transgression, Haynes takes his own transgressive approach to the material: He dares you to laugh.
An unnerving melodrama startled by fibrillations of black comedy, May December opens with Elizabeth (Portman), a TV actress, arriving in small-town Georgia to meet the woman she’ll be playing soon in a movie – tabloid sensation Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore), a Mary Kay Letourneau-like wife and mother who, 20 years prior, seduced a seventh-grader, went to prison for her crimes, and then married and made a family with him.
Portman’s Elizabeth physically doesn’t seem like an obvious choice to play Gracie onscreen, not at first: Where Gracie is diaphanous, Elizabeth projects steely. But the more time the audience has to study these two women – how Elizabeth maneuvers her way with practiced niceness into people’s homes and confidences, and how Gracie manipulates her husband and children with expertly deployed tears and backhanded compliments – you start to see the likeness. Elizabeth closes the gap further by picking up Gracie’s mannerisms. Rehearsing alone to her reflection in the mirror, Elizabeth mimics Gracie’s distinctively breathy voice, emphasizing a lisp I had barely noticed. It’s an instructive moment in how art may amplify reality in order for us to better see the truth. Or, turn it on its head and it’s a lesson in how art can exaggerate and distort reality to drive us not closer to but further from the truth.
Scripted by Samy Burch, based on a story by Burch and Alex Mechanik, and citing head-spinning references from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate to Hard Copy, May December moves a little like a dream, disorienting as the shimmering heat captured by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt. It’s heavy with suspense – counterintuitively, because we know who did it (the grown woman who had sex with the child in the pet store where they both worked). Still, there are hanging questions: Does the actress intend to present Gracie sympathetically? Does the longevity of Gracie’s marriage vindicate its salacious start? And the one that gnaws at everyone, from the lookie-loos to her own husband, reconsidering their past from the perspective of an adult and a father: What was Gracie thinking?
The feeling of suspense is goosed by the prickling score, which Haynes borrows from another movie altogether – Michel Legrand’s theme from Joseph Losey’s 1971 film, The Go-Between. The two films hinge on furtive affairs, but more significantly, both films are about a person too unformed to understand how they are being manipulated. In May December that person is Joe, Gracie’s husband, played as an adult by Charles Melton (a former CW heartthrob, he was Reggie on Riverdale). Melton gives Joe a gut, a gentle hunch, a gentle soul. It’s a crushing performance, his softness something you want to protect from the spiky women around him. When the focus shifts to him, May December loses some of its hypnotic weirdness – but it becomes a more emotionally rewarding film for it.