May December

Directed by: Todd Haynes
Distributed by: Netflix

Written by Michael Clawson


The characters in Todd Haynes movies frequently find themselves strained and alienated by the strictures of social acceptability. Take “Far from Heaven” from 2002, Haynes’s glorious ode to Douglas Sirk, where the idyllic suburban life of Julianne Moore’s ‘50s housewife is destabilized by the effects of sexual and racial prejudice. Consider “Safe” from 1995, again with Julianne Moore as a woman withering in a domestic bubble: by that film’s end, illness has led Carol White to a place of hauntingly literal isolation. More recently, there was 2015’s “Carol,” a rapturous period piece about forbidden love. Haynes’s latest masterpiece, “May December,” both is and isn’t of a piece with the director’s previous achievements. Yet another exploration of deviancy and repression, this electrifying psychodrama is also a uniquely thorny meditation on performance, power, and exploitation.

Solidifying what is one of modern cinema’s great director-actor pairings, Julianne Moore plays Gracie, a wispy Georgian woman who became a tabloid sensation years ago when she had an affair with a seventh-grader. The scandal resulted in divorce, prison time, and a pregnancy, but when the dust finally settled, Gracie and young Joe (Charles Melton), remarkably, remained a couple, and eventually married. “May December” begins years later with the arrival of Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, an actress preparing to play Gracie in a film. As Gracie and Joe go about their daily lives and prepare to send their son and daughter off to college, Elizabeth tags along and observes them carefully, hoping to unpack the essence of their relationship, and particularly Gracie’s role in it. Elizabeth is not merely a bystander whose eyes we see the film through. Elizabeth is an active, emotionally disruptive presence in Gracie and Joe’s life; her interrogation of the past threatens to reopen old wounds and throw the marriage off its balance – or illuminate the disturbing imbalance that has always been at its core.

Borrowed from a Michel Legrand score for the 1971 drama “The Go-Between,” the film’s music sets the tone as it plays over the opening credits. Haynes’s proud fondness of melodrama comes through a voluptuously ominous piano, which evokes a sense of doom that Haynes is then constantly – pleasurably – twisting and turning inside out. Dread, eroticism, comedy, and tragedy all run together in this mischievously soapy concoction, often not just in a single scene, but in a single shot. The tonal complexity is astonishing, as in a scene where Joe smokes weed for the first time with his son (who looks more like he could be Joe’s brother, given their narrow age gap). Splayed on their house’s roof together, the pot makes Joe emotional, and miraculously, it is both funny and devastating to watch. Similarly, when Gracie weepily takes to her bedroom because something trivial has rattled her – she bakes pies for neighbors, and at one point, an order is canceled – her waterfall of tears comes off as both comically absurd and genuinely concerning, dangerous even. Wrung from a densely layered script by first-time (!) screenwriter Samy Burch, the film’s emotional ambiguity is utterly riveting.

As an actress conducting research for a role, Elizabeth has the difficult task of trying to understand a couple who might not understand themselves. Mirrors are a recurring visual motif – they’re central to some of the film’s most stunning images – but little of what Elizabeth, Gracie, or Joe do in “May December” might be considered honest self-reflection. The lone occasion where Joe tries is shattering: in an incredibly brittle performance by Melton, he registers as a young boy and a thirty-six-year-old man at the same time. As Gracie, Moore is delicate but assured, and she appears to be giving a performance herself. That’s what denial is, after all, a kind of performance you put on as a shield against guilt, grief, or shame. As Elizabeth gradually takes up Gracie’s mannerisms, like the lisp that seems to come and go (another suggestion that Gracie puts up a front), Portman performs with the utmost precision. To see her, Moore, and Melton together, is to witness screen acting of the highest order.

“They’re a very beloved part of this community,” a family friend says to Elizabeth of Gracie and Joe. The comment’s timing is ironic, as it comes after Elizabeth has arrived at Gracie and Joe’s waterfront home for a barbecue. When Elizabeth comes around to the back patio, she brings a package that she found in front of the house, which, it turns out, contains human shit. “This happens sometimes,” says an unbothered Charles as he offers Elizabeth hand sanitizer. Perhaps the friend is delusional about how Gracie and Joe are perceived by the people of Savannah, or maybe public opinion really is still markedly divided between those who are happy for, and believe in, Gracie and Joe as a married couple, and those who remain disgusted by Gracie’s sexual predation. As for Haynes, he never takes a definitive stance on whether the relationship contains something like real love, or if it’s just the perverse coupling of a pedophilic housewife and the man she manipulated as a young boy. Haynes examines his characters with deep, daring curiosity, not moral judgment. That he manages to approach such fraught material with a playful touch is a staggeringly impressive feat.

“May December” Trailer

Michael Clawson is a member of the Seattle Film Critic Society you can follow his passion for film on Letterboxd.

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