Age-Gap Melodrama May December Pulls Off an Audacious Clash of Style and SubstanceMovies Reviews Todd Haynes
Partway through Todd Haynes’ May December, actor Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) is asked how she chooses her roles by a group of high school drama students. Elizabeth is in town to research her upcoming lead role in a ripped-from-the-tabloids independent movie, a part she hopes will be statement enough to eclipse the work she’s currently recognized for (playing a veterinarian on a show called Norah’s Ark, just one of screenwriter Samy Burch’s winky little jokes about the biz). Her next part is decidedly not as family friendly: Elizabeth is set to play Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), a former teacher who made the news 20 years ago for having a sexual relationship with and subsequently marrying one of her seventh-grade students, Joe (Charles Melton).
May December offers up a tantalizingly ambiguous answer to the question posed during that drama class visit. As she insinuates herself into the Atherton-Yoos’ life—tagging along with Gracie and her daughter Mary (Elizabeth Yu) as they shop for prom dresses, taking notes on the makeup brands Gracie uses, shadowing Joe at work—we begin to wonder whether Elizabeth’s devotion to the role comes only from a desperate desire to be taken seriously as an actor, or if there’s something deeper and darker lurking within.
Burch’s script—and Portman’s brilliantly cryptic performance—keep these possibilities balanced on a fine edge. We’re never completely sure if Elizabeth is just going ultra-Method when, for example, she complains that the boys auditioning for the part of young Joe aren’t “sexy enough,” or when she visits the pet shop stockroom where the couple were first discovered and simulates the sexual encounter that led to Gracie’s arrest. The disturbing possibility that the two women are secretly more alike than Elizabeth lets on only grows when she talks to the drama students about sex scenes—telling them that, sometimes, the acting is in pretending she’s not enjoying them. That smudging of the line between Gracie and Elizabeth physically manifests in the gradual converging of their appearances in cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s inspired Bergman-esque images.
For her part, Moore brings fascinating, dissonant depths to Gracie. There’s a touch of the Stepford wife to her: She runs a twee bakery from her and Joe’s pristine suburban home, negs her teenage daughter about her weight, and gives off an air of simmering derangement. Gracie is both blind to the damage she’s caused—sighing that Joe “grew up very quickly,” as if entirely oblivious to the fact that she’s the reason why—and disconcertingly self-aware about the psychological mechanisms that allow her to be so delusional, telling Elizabeth, “I am naive. I always have been. In a way, it’s been a gift.” Gracie is terrifyingly sociopathic, but Moore brings a relieving touch of camp to the role with a farcically exaggerated lisp and melodramatic line readings, a comic undertone that is amplified by Blauvelt’s soap-operatic zooms and composer Marcelo Zarvos’ histrionic score.
But May December—inspired by the real-life scandal involving teacher Mary Kay Letourneau and the sixth-grade student she went on to marry—never loses touch with the sense of tragedy at its heart, thanks to Melton’s grounding, poignant performance as Joe. Elizabeth’s arrival complicates an already vulnerable moment for him (his kids leaving the nest), triggering an anguished moment of self-reflection. If he doesn’t quite feel like a natural father to incoming college freshmen, that’s by design: As the film progresses, Melton deftly reveals Joe to be a tragically stunted man coming to terms with his own missed childhood—and, crucially, Gracie’s calculated efforts to keep him trapped in her spider’s web. May December inserts a chrysalis metaphor into the narrative (Joe lovingly raises endangered monarch butterflies in his spare time) to make it clear this is a moment of metamorphosis, but this device feels unnecessary next to Melton’s layered portrayal, which says it all.
That rather unsubtle analogy aside, May December is otherwise a film of great tonal delicacy, as Haynes, Burch and their actors delicately modulate the film between high camp and twisted psychological drama. Pulling off such a seemingly incongruous blend of sensationalism and sincere thoughtfulness is no easy task, but writer and director miraculously find a way to ease the tension between style and substance—and, what’s more, manage to deliver wry commentary on the way we consume scandals at the same time.
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Samy Burch
Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton
Release Date: May 20, 2023 (Cannes)
Farah Cheded is a British-Algerian critic and Columbo enthusiast. Her work can be found at outlets including Film School Rejects, Paste Magazine, and The Playlist.