A heartbreakingly sincere piece of high camp that teases real human drama from the stuff of tabloid sensationalism, Todd Haynes’ delicious “May December” continues the director’s tradition of making films that rely upon the self-awareness that seems to elude their characters — especially the ones played by Julianne Moore.
Here, the actress reteams with her “Safe” director to play Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a lispy former school teacher who became a household name back in 1992 when she left her ex-husband for one of her 13-year-old students. Now it’s 2015, the situation has normalized somewhat, and Gracie and Joe (a dad bod Charles Melton) have been together long enough that their youngest children are about to graduate high school. The occasional package full of poop still arrives at the waterside Savannah mansion that Gracie and Joe paid for with appearances on “Inside Edition,” but such deliveries — gifts from random strangers who can’t stomach the couple’s love story — have become less common now that their scandalous romance has settled into suburban reality. Or so it would appear.
Alas, the past isn’t quite ready to release its grip on these crazy kids just yet, and Gracie lacks the good sense to keep it at a safe distance. Despite her skepticism of celebrities — the result of an unspecified run-in with Judge Judy — Gracie decides to roll out the welcome mat for breathy TV actress Elizabeth Berry, who’s played by Natalie Portman (phenomenally on pointe in a merciless performance that feels like it’s dressed in some kind of “Closer” drag). Elizabeth is the same age that Gracie was when she first had sex with Joe in the back of a pet store, and is set to play her in an upcoming independent film about the scandal.
Whether it’s a part of her process or simply a byproduct of her insecurities about creating a character from scratch, Elizabeth is eager to study every inch of Gracie’s existence in order to prepare for the role. Even Daniel Day-Lewis would probably have some questions about the degree to which Elizabeth insinuates herself into Atherton-Yoo family life. One minute she’s asking Gracie how she met her husband, the next she’s visiting Joe in secret at the hospital where he works as an X-Ray technician, and purring at her own ability to see right through him.
By the time Elizabeth volunteers to sit for a Q&A at Gracie’s daughter’s high school acting class, where she replies to a snickering teenager’s question about sex scenes with a knowingly seductive monologue about the way that lines can blur between a performer and their part (“Am I pretending I’m experiencing pleasure, or am I pretending I’m not experiencing pleasure?”), it’s clear that Moore is about to be put through her most intense rehearsal process since “Vanya on 42nd Street.”
Written by Samy Burch, whose script Haynes seems to have tweaked into a catty-as-fuck dark comedy that deepens his longstanding obsession with performance while poking fun at the kind of actresses he clearly loves so much, “May December” introduces itself as a piece of minimalism pitched somewhere between “All About Eve” and “Persona.” The average scene might unfold over the course of a sterile wide shot in Gracie’s kitchen that — hilariously — ends with her looking inside the fridge and declaring “I don’t have enough hot dogs!” as Michel Legrand’s dramatic theme from “The Go-Between” pounds over the soundtrack with the force of 1,000 soap operas. Or it could be set in the whisper-quiet restaurant bathroom where Gracie and Elizabeth stand side-by-side in front of the sink and stare directly into Christopher Blauvelt’s camera as they contemplate everything but their own reflections. For every skewering laughline, there’s a carefully posed shot of Natalie Portman obscured by a mannequin or flanked by two copies of her co-star in a trifold mirror.
Haynes’ tonal playfulness has sometimes been overshadowed by the unerring consistency of his emotional textures, but here, in the funniest and least “stylized” of his films, it’s easier than ever to appreciate his genius for using artifice as a vehicle for truth. The interplay between the various modes that he flips between in “May December” may not be as dynamic as those in “Poison” or as striking as those in “Wonderstruck,” but Haynes has never swerved between them to such amusing effect, or made the conversation between them quite so legible in the process.
Gracie might think her studied lack of shame indicates that she’s over the complications of starting a new family with a seventh-grader (peep Moore’s shark-eyed smile when she casually mentions the fact that her son and her grandson are both in the same grade at school), but her blithe “everyone’s got skeletons in their closet, have a piece of upside down pineapple cake!” attitude tells Elizabeth the opposite. Likewise, Gracie isn’t blind to the fact that Elizabeth couldn’t so much as put money in a parking meter without acting like she wanted to fuck it — she creates sexual tension with literally everyone she meets, up to and including the underage boy she walks past in slow-motion in a high school hallway — but the actress herself doesn’t seem to understand the insecurity that might convey to an observer, or have any awareness of the fact that Haynes is gradually shifting the brunt of his critical attention towards her.
If Elizabeth’s mission to interrogate everyone in Gracie’s life makes the first half of “May December” feel like some kind of method actor “Spotlight,” the buried emotions she digs up along the way eventually force that spotlight back on her. Nobody in this movie is capable of looking at themselves, which is part of the reason why there’s such perverse fun to be had in passing our own judgments. Who is this strange woman who secretly pantomimes being ravished on the same pet store staircase where Gracie and Joe first had sex, and why is it so important to her that she understands her character’s every little nuance? Is her attraction to Joe genuine or parasitic, and will she give a shit if and when the process of studying Gracie’s life begins to change it forever?
The various questions that “May December” raises as it destabilizes virtually everyone in it all lead back to one that Elizabeth is asked during that acting class: “How do you choose your roles?” Joe, who was forcibly coerced into his future with Gracie when he was only 13 years old, never had much of a say in the role he got to play. Melton delivers a well-modulated and eventually rather moving performance as a stunted man-child who’s younger than his own kids in some ways.
Any Haynes film has a few lines that stop you dead in your tracks like an icepick to the heart, and none in “May December” are more striking than when Joe turns to his son in the middle of a conversation and blurts out: “I don’t know if we’re connecting, or if I’m creating a bad memory for you.” It’s a painfully honest confession from any parent to their kid, but it doubles here as an out-of-body experience for someone who — with a nudge from his wife’s understudy — is reconsidering his own casting for the first time in his adult life.
Joe’s obsession with butterflies might seem to be a little on the nose, but what it means to emerge from a chrysalis has rarely been more fraught than it is here. “May December” is a film where one of the female leads protects her naïveté like a holy relic (Moore is predictably sensational, her soft-hard performance balancing Gracie on the knife’s edge between childlike fragility and matriarchal savageness), while the other possesses the power to be reborn with every set-up. It’s almost impossible for most of us to start over, as opposed to on a film set where a clean slate is never hard to find. Self-reflection isn’t necessary when you can always go again. And after you get the shot, there might even be time enough to grab a bonus take for safety. Or as Elizabeth might put it: “Just for me.”
“May December” premiered in Competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.