FILM REVIEW: The Todd Haynes-directed “MAY DECEMBER” is a multilayered film that uses deception to mine deeper truths

Last Updated: November 15, 2023By Tags: , , ,

Written by Samy Burch (from a story by Alex Mechanik), the screenplay for Todd Haynes’s latest work, “May December,” is filled with wit and irony. Haynes’s film maintains that sharp edge throughout, but stands, also, as a striking examination of the complexity of human sexuality and attraction that reveals a shattering emotional core in its characters.

The film is not-so-loosely based on the infamous case of Mary Kay Letourneau, who went to prison for rape at thirty-five when her sexual relationship with a twelve-year-old boy was made public. Letourneau had the young boy’s babies while incarcerated. After her release, the two married and lived together as a family until she died in 2020.

For “May December,” Julianne Moore is Gracie, a scandalous woman who (like the character’s real-life inspiration) did time in prison for raping a 7th grader who worked with her in a pet store. Twenty-plus years on, the two are married with three nearly grown children; the eldest daughter, Honor (Piper Curda), is away at college, and their younger twins, Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung), are preparing to graduate high school. Gracie has moved into her late fifties while her husband Joe (Charles Melton) has just crossed his mid-thirties. On the surface, the family seems to be living the happiest life possible, but Haynes wants you to look closer.

Christopher Blauvelt’s camera lays the visual groundwork for the film in these early scenes. Set, and filmed in, Savannah, Ga., Haynes and Blauvelt aren’t interested in sunny skies. While Gracie and her family are introduced to having a cookout at their beautiful home overlooking the water, one understands that this is meant to be perceived as something other than idyllic. In almost every scene, the skies are cloudy. There is sunshine, but it is never beaming. Gracie and Joe seem settled, but are they genuinely living life or masking the shame of their unholy union? Their lives and children are forever blanketed in scandal, and the observed normalcy is deceptive.

Natalie Portman is Elizabeth Barry, a top-tier actress preparing to play Gracie in an independent film. Gracie has invited Elizabeth to visit them at their home, and the actress arrives in dark glasses, walking the grounds of the house with apprehension. Although Elizabeth repeatedly states how she is hopeful the film might help the world better understand Gracie and Joe’s tale, her presence is immediately uncomfortable. While daughter Mary and her teen friends are giddily starstruck to see the actress in person, it is apparent that no one else is welcoming Elizabeth with open arms.

As Elizabeth begins her overly invasive and almost obsessive “research,” the film slowly reveals the more profound subtexts of Gracie and Joe’s relationship dynamics. Gracie is domineering, but not out of aggressiveness or desire to “rule” the household. As the film gives us little moments where she gives Joe a list of things he must get done, it becomes clear that these demands aren’t just “honey-dos” but chores. Gracie has two decades on her husband. This isn’t a wife trying to balance the domestic duties. Julianne Moore is an expert at playing broken women who pretend to have it together, and Gracie plays to the actress’s prowess. A homemaker who keeps busy with her home cake-baking business, the slightest shift in her plans will send Gracie into the bedroom, crying for hours–she’s unstable.

This is Moore’s fifth film with Haynes. Theirs is an artistically fruitful working relationship (which began with 1995’s “Safe”) in which director and performer understand one another’s strengths, each one in perfect harmony when working together. Gracie allows Julianne Moore another finely tuned creation.

Charles Melton quietly unspools the realities of Joe’s existence through the character’s softly spoken demeanor, a passivity that shows a man emotionally crippled by regret. Burch’s screenplay presents Joe as a victim, still tortured by the deceptions of the woman who raped him. Joe spends his time trying to be alone, enjoying a beer on the couch while watching episodes of “This Old House”. The film doesn’t reveal if this is his way of relaxing or doing it because this is what grown-ups do after a hard day’s work. Joe’s restlessness is apparent as he shares flirty texts with an unnamed woman and walks around his own home with the look of someone lost. As his children leave the nest, he realizes that being with only Gracie is not the way to move into the second half of his life. Joe is an adolescent soul forced into adulthood. He never had the hope of a bright future nor allowed to partake in the privilege of youth. As Joe looks at his children and their bright futures with sadness and remorse, Melton’s work is absolutely heartbreaking.

In design and performance, Portman’s character is a triumph. As Elizabeth begins interviewing the people in Gracie and Joe’s life, the character becomes a paradox. Gracie’s ex-husband, Tom (D.W. Moffett), seems like a nice guy who is struggling with what happened, still. Tom and Gracie’s damaged son, Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), unnerves Elizabeth with his spirited personality. The actress is an outsider but claims to need the intimate moments to shape her portrayal into something honest.

As the film continues, Elizabeth’s motivations become increasingly spurious. Engaged to be married, the actress is annoyed when her fiancé calls and in a later conversation, it comes to light that she is having an affair with her film’s director. There are also the glances between her and Joe, which signal how, all these years later, he is still being preyed upon.

Portman has never been better as, from scene to scene, Elizabeth’s emotional cracks show. Betraying the characters “I’m just an actress who is honored to be allowed into your humble home” demeanor, Elizabeth’s actions have a darkness to them that lets slip how she is just as damaged as Gracie. Portman’s best moments come during an extended monologue played straight to the camera (where she adopts a lisp that is more exaggerated than Gracie’s own) and in a mischievously funny scene where Elizabeth answers a teen male student’s question about performing sex scenes. As she describes how there are times she gets turned on while doing such scenes, it is evident that Elizabeth is turned on by seeing how it is arousing the male students.

Though serious in its subject matter, Director Haynes is having a wicked ball. It has been some time since the filmmaker has felt this in complete control of a film. Here, the master stroke is composer Marcelo Zarvos’s re-working of Michel Legrand’s score for Joseph Losey’s 1971 Pinter adaptation “The Go-Between.” Losey’s film was also about forbidden love and its sea of disruption. Haynes uses Legrand’s compositions only when necessary, sometimes for dramatic shock and, occasionally, for grim humor.

The film falters only when it brings up more questions than it can answer. While Elizabeth’s current life is purposefully doled out in small reveals, some facts regarding Gracie’s past (and a few of her motivations) aren’t explored deeply enough. Moore’s character should not be an enigma, and the introduction of Gracie’s son from her first marriage promises a more dramatic impact than it delivers.

There will be obvious comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” still, the film stands on its own as a mostly fascinating look at the fetishization of even the most vile people. Lest one forgets, when Gracie was in her thirties, she raped a middle schooler and manipulated him into never living his own life. It becomes almost macabre watching Elizabeth go too far, getting into the mindset of this dangerous woman. In the film’s brilliant final moment (which I shall not divulge), Elizabeth and Gracie are equally the serpent, a two-headed snake of temptation, lies, and destruction.

“May December” deals with uncomfortable subject matter. Haynes rightfully offers no relief from the pain witnessed within this fractured family. Like a lot of the director’s work, it is a multilayered film that uses deception to mine deeper truths; by the end, the film reaches a profound and inescapable conclusion.

Film is available at Netflix here

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