May December Review: A Devastating Take On Performance, Pretence And Pain

Director Todd Haynes’s new film stars Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore.
May December Review: A Devastating Take On Performance, Pretense And Pain
May December Review: A Devastating Take On Performance, Pretense And Pain

Director: Todd Haynes

Writer: Samy Burch

Cast: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton

Duration: 117 mins

Available in: Theatres

To act is to pretend. Does it matter what kernel of truth an actress locates in her role or that a housewife is (almost fanatically) dedicated to the performance of being a model member of the community? Director Todd Haynes's May December might be peppered with moments of soap-opera melodrama, but the genre it gradually shifts into, while examining people who end up as fodder for the true-crime mill, is that of a horror movie unfolding in broad daylight. Initial shots depict stretches of sunny suburbia and backyard barbecues, before revealing the community as one where ominous packages could end up outside your house and a "beloved" neighbour just happens to be a groomer and pedophile.

That would be Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), who was arrested for having sex with her employee Joe (Charles Melton) when she was 36 and he, 13. Loosely based on the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, an American teacher jailed for grooming her 12-year-old student in 1997, May December picks up with Gracie and Joe 23 years later, married with three kids. The rhythms of their lives are disrupted with the arrival of Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), an actress preparing to play Gracie in a film adaptation of the scandal.

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December
Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December

A large part of May December is driven by the tension between these two women, one of whom is determined to live an unexamined life at any cost, the other whose job it is to meticulously pick it apart at the seams. Both play at the truth but have built their houses upon foundations of artifice. The film's discordant score and dramatic zoom-ins all add to a sense that we're watching something theatrical and stagey.

If Elizabeth's the actress, Gracie's the director as the latter sets up scenes of domestic intimacy, steering the conversations, nudging Joe into the part she wants him to play. She treats him like a child — monitoring his alcohol intake, giving him chores — while simultaneously insisting that he holds the power in this relationship. This is a woman firmly insistent that she's shut the door on the past, even as packages of shit continue to turn up at her doorstep.

Haynes plays with the fluidity of identity and image through several mirror shots. In one scene, set at a clothing store, Elizabeth is sandwiched between two Gracies - the real person and her mirror image. As the real person talks, her carefully selected anecdotes feed the image she's crafted. Gracie's visual dominance of the frame reinforces her to be in control as she makes backhanded comments about her daughter's appearance, undermining her self-confidence in the dressing room, turning that same mirror into a source of insecurity for her. In another scene, Elizabeth's reflection is prominently framed as she tells her producer that the young actors auditioning to play Joe in her film aren't "sexy enough". Mirror shots recur often in May December, a movie with characters so incapable of self-reflection.

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December
Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December

As Elizabeth begins to morph into Gracie outwardly — her clothing choices go from jeans, blazers and dark colours to soft flowy pastels over the film, and by the end, they're dressed identically — what also becomes clear is that internally, they're more alike than they seemed. Both have exploited Joe, the film's achingly sad centre. Hunched over and eyes downcast, Joe embodies the physicality of a child forever frozen in time by his trauma. He's 36 now, the same age Gracie was when their relationship began all those years ago, and the bursts of clarity that break through his stunted mindset make for the film’s most heartbreaking scenes.

Like the ending of Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), in which the Osage killings are packaged into radio entertainment interrupted by repetitive shoutouts to advertisers, even May December's last scenes, Elizabeth's tawdry reenactment of Gracie seducing a teenage Joe, confront art's inadequacy to really, empathetically capture the full scope of trauma. Haynes's visual metaphors too veer towards bluntness — he positions Gracie, raised to be a hunter, against Joe, who grows into a nurturer — but the tender imagery of the latter induces a pang. Robbed of his own childhood, Joe raises generations of butterflies year after year, eventually setting them free, knowing he can never escape his own cage.

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