Todd Haynes returns with a sumptuous, wicked psychological drama starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore. Here’s our May December review.
In Todd Haynes’ latest film, May December, Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, a famous actress who’s signed on to play Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) in a biopic. Gracie is married to Joe (Charles Melton), a man 20 years younger than her; their illegal, troubling romance once graced every newspaper frontpage.
Once Gracie and Joe’s relationship became public, Gracie went to prison, where she had the couple’s child. Twenty years later, they’re living an idyllic life, which Elizabeth’s arrival disrupts. Elizabeth insists she’s making a tasteful, respectful film, but lines between reality and fiction quickly start to blur.
What this short summary doesn’t tell you is just how funny May December is. Of course, there’s nothing funny about statutory rape – which is what Gracie has committed by sleeping with Joe when the latter was only 13 – but Haynes isn’t particularly interested in the morals of the story, and instead focuses on the current state of Gracie and Joe’s marriage as well as Elizabeth’s process of imitating and embodying Gracie for the role. Haynes, who has always championed Queer stories, brings delightful campiness to May December, which creates a fascinating tone that feels uniquely Haynesian.
Haynes’ background in melodramas is clear in May December. Samy Burch’s script is loosely based on the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher who married her student. The script is carefully written and the film is directed with precision by Haynes, but the talented cast bring even the more ridiculous lines of dialogue to life.
Both Portman and Moore have flashy roles, which allow the actresses to flex both their dramatic and comedic muscles. Moore in particular is good at selling Gracie’s humanity, even when she acts like a petulant child, which is often. Gracie feels like a departure from Moore’s other characters; everything about Gracie, from her name to the slight lisp in her voice, seems immature, and she often radiates insecurity, especially as all her flaws are brought out by Elizabeth, whose job it is to dig into her character as deeply as possible.
The film’s revelation, however, is Melton. Having graduated from teen dramas such as Riverdale to more serious roles, Melton brilliantly captures Joe’s complex personality and confused mood. He’s offered a puff of weed by his stepson, something he’s never previously tried as his youth was stolen from him by Gracie. Melton mixes a youthful innocence with a world weariness in his performance. Elizabeth’s arrival also brings up regret over his life choices for Joe as the beautiful actress incorporates herself deeper into the couple’s life.
Ultimately, May December is a story of exploitation and a cultural tendency to turn trauma into entertainment. Everyone in the film is taking advantage of everyone and everyone is putting on a performance. A standout scene shows Gracie putting makeup on Elizabeth. The scene is borderline erotic, yet deeply uncomfortable. Moore and Portman spark off each other naturally, and their dynamic is the film’s biggest strength. Every interaction becomes a power struggle for the queendom of the screen, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off it.
May December can be a little heavy on the subtext. Joe collects and nurtures caterpillars which blossom in captivity under his care and he then sets them free into the world, perhaps suggesting he too has lived in captivity for too long and yearns to be freed from Gracie. Thankfully, Haynes never seeks to either justify or judge Gracie and Joe’s marriage, but to simply observe how their past has shaped them.
It’s not easy to make a film like May December. The premise alone, with its connections to a real-life story, is potentially controversial, but Haynes handles it with confidence and manages to spin it into a thoughtful, insightful and most importantly, wildly entertaining film. It has juicy themes of truth, lies and deception, and it packs a mighty punch in its 113 minute runtime.
May December is now in cinemas and will be available on Sky Cinema on the 8th December.