I first saw Todd Haynes’ May December last Saturday at a punishingly late press screening at 11pm, shortly after watching Killers of the Flower Moon. My exhausted brain, which was very much still processing the Osage murders, registered something exciting that it struggled to unpack. So I made it a point to see the film a second time today, and my suspicion was confirmed: the hypnotically high-camp drama has real bite and betrays ever more layers the closer you look. It is one of the very best films of this year’s rock-solid competition.
Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, an actress who’s getting ready to play Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore), a woman whose affair with a 13-year-old boy shocked the nation 20 years ago. After serving her jail sentence, Gracie legally married the boy (Joe, played by Charles Melton) with whom she has three children. Now living a quiet life in Savannah, Gracie agrees to let Elizabeth study her in preparation for the role. As the actress tries to get under the skin of her subject, old wounds would resurface while new questions arise.
Building on top of a somewhat salacious premise, the screenplay by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik tackles various themes with great finesse. In the #MeToo era, questions of age gap and consent are obviously hot button issues. But instead of giving us something to get worked up about easily, the writers invite us to consider the situation again by imagining a gender flip and the passage of twenty years after the supposed crime. Can a boy of 13 who has had more sexual experience be the victim of sexual predation by a woman decades his senior when he was the one who seduced her? Does the fact that “predator” and “victim” later started a family together prove that all the law does is protecting third parties from a silly ick-factor? What’s it like to have a father who looks like a brother and to grow up with parents whose love was considered a crime? And how does the “boy” feel about the way things turned out now that he’s reached the age of his “abuser” back then? Without ever coming across as judgmental, the film simply observes the curious dynamics of a family marked by scandal and asks if their every proclamation of love needs to be accompanied by an asterisk.
The observer in this case has a few ethical questions to answer too. While Elizabeth’s initial reason for approaching Gracie and her family sounds innocent enough, her method of obtaining information, of getting closer and closer to someone she’s playing in a movie becomes troubling at some point. As an upset Joe points out late in the film, what she’s so excitedly analyzing is not a story, it’s a life. This painful indictment would seem to apply not only to an actor with a mission, but also to the collective voyeurism of our society.
In addition to its observation of tricky sexual politics and commentary on a performer’s duty to their real-life subject, May December offers a penetrating character study of two women who gradually reveal themselves in the process of becoming one. Both seem blandly likable at first, with Gracie being this hospitable, clueless housewife and Elizabeth the diligent, down-to-earth movie star. Except little by little, you realize how effed up they really are. Gracie’s naiveté, which has become a self-defense mechanism, borders on the pathological and keeps her in a state of denial for decades. When she feels threatened in the bubble she’s built for herself, the darkness that comes out chills to the bone. The obsessive nature of Elizabeth’s quest to “get Gracie right” becomes evident towards the end of the film. What she says to Joe in a very vulnerable moment is so mean it compels you to completely reconsider her character.
Thanks to the brilliantly nuanced performances by Portman (more of a lead) and Moore (more supporting), these two messy, complex women are brought vividly to life. Portman’s performance hovers between registers of authenticity and artificiality. In an extended monologue where Elizabeth reads a letter written by Gracie, you watch her disappear into a character who is disappearing into another character. Breathtaking work. And no one plays crazy better than Julianne Moore. In a scene where Gracie manically cries about a friend cancelling her cake order, probably no other actor could have communicated the unhinged energy more convincingly. It’s worth noting that Melton also brings his A-game as Joe. He’s never less than natural acting opposite his Oscar winning co-stars and a scene he shares with the college-age son might be the most/only sincerely moving one in the film.
People shouldn’t get ahead of themselves with awards talk for May December. It’s an art film that is proudly camp. But whether or not Oscars or Ruben Östlund’s Cannes jury find it deserving of recognition, Haynes and his collaborators have created something smart, nasty, singular that’s certainly worth a watch – or two.