At the Cannes press conference for Todd Haynes’ “May December,” nobody mentioned the real-life relationship between schoolteacher Mary Kay Letourneau and her former student, Vili Fualaau, which started when he was 12 years old. But the movie, which stars Julianne Moore as a fictional schoolteacher years after a similar tabloid scandal and Natalie Portman as an actress attempting to play her, has clear ties to a real-life situation even if the project doesn’t serve as an official biopic.
Just as Letourneau and Fualaau ultimately raised the two children conceived while he was a minor, Moore’s character Gracie remains married to thirtysomething Joe (Charles Melton) when Portman’s arrival at their home to research the part complicates the dynamic. “The reason this movie feels so dangerous is because people don’t know where anyone’s boundaries are,” Moore said. “An age gap is one thing, but a relationship between an adult and a child is a different thing entirely.”
Portman brought Haynes the script by Samy Burch (who did not participate in the press conference due to the WGA strike) in the early days of COVID. She stopped short of acknowledging its non-fiction basis, but hinted at some of the material that helped her prepare for the role. “We had the inspirational tabloid materials that existed,” she said. “There was a book with a crazy title — ‘Punished for Love,’ or something like that.” (Among the books published about the Letourneau story was Gregg Alson’s “If Loving You Is Wrong: The Shocking True Story of Mary Kay Letourneau,” in 1999. The couple divorced in 2019 and Letournau died in 2020.)
Moore is no stranger to movies about transgressive relationships, as she also starred in Tom Kalin’s incest drama “Savage Grace,” which premiered at Cannes in 2007. In this case, Moore said, the character appealed to her because of the way the character tries to convince herself that her young partner seduced her — rather than the other way around. “Her transgression is so enormous that she sort of buries it in her own performative femininity where she casts this child as a male figure and therefore her dominant,” Moore said. “That to me was unbelievably complicated and compelling.”
“May December” marks Haynes’ fifth time with a film at Cannes and his fifth collaboration with Moore, but it’s the first in a long time to arrive with serious buyer interest. (His last narrative feature in competition, “Carol,” came to Cannes with The Weinstein Company in tow.) Buyers waited in the rain to attend the 10:30 p.m. gala screening on Saturday, which started close to an hour late due to a delayed start time for Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which took place immediately beforehand. IndieWire spotted buyers from Neon, Searchlight, Magnolia, and Netflix at the screening and the after party, which didn’t get underway until close to 2 a.m. CAA is selling “May December” and juggling offers from various interested parties with an eye toward awards potential. In addition to Haynes’ longtime producing partner Christine Vachon and Portman, “May December” also boasts Will Ferrell as a producer through his Gloria Sanchez Production company, and he was also spotted at the premiere.
Less than 24 hours after walking the red carpet, Portman took a moment to single out the unfair expectations that Cannes places on women in the spotlight. “The different ways women are expected to behave at this festival even compared to men and how we’re supposed to look, how we’re supposed to carry ourselves — expectations are different on you all the time and it affects how you behave,” she said. “You’re definitely defined by the social structures upon you.” Her comments arrive a few days after a petition, published on Change.org and signed by close to 2,400 following its initial exposure in the French newspaper Libération, lambasted the festival for “rolling out the red carpet to men and women who assault.”
Portman added that these concerns extend to the themes of her new movie. “The whole film is so much about performance and the different roles we play in different environments for different people, even for ourselves,” she said. “Of course, performing femininity is a recurring theme in Todd’s films as well.”