Download:: NYFF Review: May December
When depicting a sensitive, personal, and ongoing true story, what responsibility does an artist have to a victim? When is capturing that story for hungry audiences not worth re-inflicting the pain onto those who experience the situation firsthand? With May December, veteran auteur Todd Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch, making her feature-length debut, set out to explore the purpose and value of art as it depicts small but painful interpersonal connections. Serious of a subject as it may sound, they may have also made the most entertaining film of 2023.
Loosely inspired by Mary Kay Letourneau’s affair with her 12-year-old student in the ‘90s, May December is a playful inversion of how one might tell that story, instead showing us an actress doing research to play a tabloid icon of yesteryear. Set in 2015, at the height of the true crime craze, Natalie Portman leads as Elizabeth Berry, the recognizable star of medical procedural on TV who has recently been cast as Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), who, at age 36, had an affair with a 13-year-old co-worker at the Savannah, Georgia pet store they both worked at. Twenty years later, Gracie is married to the boy-turned-man, Joe (Charles Melton), and they have three kids, the last of which are twins about to go off to college. Together, they still live in Savannah, hosting barbecues like a normal family, even as they’re often confronted with their publicly controversial past on a routine basis.
Elizabeth arrives to observe Gracie and her family for her role at one of these barbecues, handing a box that was left on Gracie’s front porch to her before they can even get acquainted. When Joe opens the box, he’s faced with human shit. “This happens sometimes,” Gracie and her ever-so-slightly-exaggerated lisp tell her, playing it off. Right from this first meeting, every glare Elizabeth and Gracie point toward each other is bathed in purpose. Marcelo Zarvos’ bombastic, soapy score accentuates quick zooms into Portman and Moore’s faces. The tone Haynes strikes here is precise: This is going to be some catty high camp. May December initially wants us to think we’re about to have some What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?-style fun, and while there’s a vibe akin to it that stays with us throughout, the film evolves in ways that show Haynes and Burch’s deeper intentions in telling this story.
Surprisingly, Portman and Moore aren’t actually on screen together all that often. Instead, Elizabeth tasks herself with the job of an investigative journalist merged with an actress. She interviews Gracie’s husband at the time of the affair. She goes to the pet shop and asks to poke around the storage room where Gracie and Joe were first caught (Elizabeth even starts miming having sex while alone in the room, one of the films many giggle-inducing moments). And she starts spending a lot of time with Joe. Somehow, these knowledge-seeking endeavors always seem to make their way back to Gracie, who grows more and more frustrated each passing day. Her confident façade of having nothing to hide is beginning to crumble.
When Elizabeth and Gracie do get together, it feels like every glass surface around them might just shatter. Every time they meet, Elizabeth picks up another of Gracie’s attributes, slowly changing her wardrobe and mannerisms. Tense as they are around each other, Gracie encourages their complicated temporary symbiosis, as if she’s threatening Elizabeth to tell her story incorrectly. It plays like Haynes paying tribute to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona for a while, albeit with a satirical spin on the juxtaposition of high and low Americana.
Naturally, Portman and Moore are spectacular, the former particularly so. Gracie may be the subject, but she’s a supporting player to Elizabeth’s lead, and as her, Portman keeps adding and peeling back layers that at once suggest raw talent and sheer ineptitude. Not unlike last year’s camp masterpiece Tár, May December isn’t always so direct about its comedy or how it feels about its supposedly talented characters’ skills.
But at this stage, the film isn’t quite done evolving yet. The more time Elizabeth spends in Savannah, the more Joe starts to take centerstage. His naivete and overall lack of control in his marriage becomes more apparent to him the more he’s faced with a woman who is starting to pretend to be his now wife when they first met. Great as Portman and Moore are, it’s Melton who steals the show as Joe becomes the soul of the film. He represents the truth in a swirl of real-world lies, gaslighting, and the smoke and mirrors of Hollywood, and his truth is nothing short of disturbing. For all the daggers and barbs that make May December such a delicious watch, it’s Melton that ascends it into something genuinely affecting.
Haynes and Burch find the pitch-perfect note to end on, showing us what all this effort and turmoil was ultimately worth. The filmmakers want us to revel in the grossness that there is an appetite for recreations of intimate personal tragedies (even if not everyone involved considers it a tragedy), and they succeed by morphing soapy melodrama into just plain drama. May December is a masterful story of forcefully reopened wounds that never should have existed in the first place. In the end, the differences between truth and exploitation may be thin, but under no circumstances should they be ignored.