Starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, May December is an emotionally volatile look at abuse from director Todd Haynes.
May December, directed by Todd Haynes and written by Samy Burch, wants us to be uncomfortable. From the performances to the score by Marcelo Zarvos that overpowers and overwhelms, and the framing that tends to leer in a voyeuristic study of characters, every moment of Hayne’s latest seeks to destabilize a picturesque world. That much is clear in the opening sequence, as actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) arrives at the expansive New Orleans home of Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her much younger husband, Joe (Charles Melton) in preparation for a movie she’s shooting where Elizabeth will be playing Gracie.
Joe tends to the barbeque, and Gracie welcomes guests before both deal with a box of shit that’s been delivered to their home, ready and accustomed to such packages, Joe ready with sanitizer as Gracie disregards it. It may all look like they’re living an idyllic life, but, really, it’s shit with a bow tied around it.
The movie that Elizabeth is shooting documents the tabloid fodder of Gracie who, we soon learn, groomed and sexually abused Joe when he was 13 years old. She’d have their eldest daughter behind bars, before continuing their relationship once she’d been released, having two more children, twins, after they reunited. The film sinks its claws into us because it’s not just that we must watch this group of people go on with their lives knowing how poorly Joe was mistreated but how everyone treats the subject.
This is where the film further seeks to shake us.
The musical cues are superb and are part of what makes the film adopt some camp leanings. Take, for instance, the swell of the score when Moore’s Gracie announces that she’s low on hotdogs for the barbeque or, later, as her full body weeps because a single patron of her baking has canceled their orders, the music mounting in equal measure. In contrast, Joe’s moments are quiet and settled. Gracie has built a narrative of victimhood for herself, and it’s accompanied by noise and chatter while Joe has been left to within in a stage of suspended adolescence, bemoaning being an empty nester when he never had the chance to leave him at all, having been ripped from it instead.
The writing for Gracie is tremendous in how it depicts such a vile character. From her assertions to Elizabeth about how, when she and Joe first met, he was the more experienced and her the more naive despite her being in her late 30s and him being a teenager — barely a teenager — to her accusations against Joe when he begins to crumble, telling him he had all the power — there’s no doubt of her horridness. The strength in the writing comes from how it’s also made plainly clear that she believes in the bull she’s peddled, having built herself a world that only reflects what she wants to see.
Portman makes a meal out of her role.
It’s what makes the framing of Portman and Moore so enticing and hypnotic, as they are often positioned in front of or between mirrors. In a way, Elizabeth is a reflection of Gracie, as she slowly begins to mimic and pick up ticks of Gracie’s, and the two images become more similar in those mirrored reflections. But it’s a reflection Gracie didn’t choose, making the direction by Haynes and cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt all the more imposing and claustrophobic.
If the film itself steers towards voyeurism as we peek behind the curtain of a disturbed life, then these sequences in front of the mirror are the most deliberately opaque as each woman decidedly is putting on a show for the other. It’s that distinction between raw, poorly contained emotions in scenes with Melton’s Joe and the staged artifice of these mirrored moments that create a delicious discordance. Again, it’s the score and the fear of no hotdogs — something is always slightly amiss.
An acidic bite.
Portman makes a meal out of her role, always teetering on the edge where we don’t know if she’s going to bite her scene partner or kiss them. Regardless, it’s a consumptive role where her eyes and body language suggest someone who wants to devour those around her. Melton, meanwhile, is taut and restrained to the point where the way Joe speaks is painful, inducing the type of discomforting pity because his heart is so openly being broken day after day and no one seems to care, aside, again, from his teenage son who admits to wanting to run away from the home he’s been raised in.
Some of the most pivotal moments in May December are traced with a heavy hand. Moore’s Gracie shares a standoff with a fox, two predators caught in a moment of shared, understood identity. In contrast, Melton’s Joe holds a monarch butterfly, newly hatched, delicate, and writhing in a combative, hostile world. There’s a distinct lack of subtlety that charges these moments — and others in the film — that allow for the bigger moments, the persistent sensation of wrongness, to permeate and settle in our chests.
A remarkable feat of filmmaking.
Be it Elizabeth’s blase attitude to the trauma Joe endured beyond her own intellectual understanding that what Gracie did was abuse, to the way everyone refers to Elizabeth’s sexual and emotional abuse as her and Joe’s “affair”, to the way his teenage son is the only person who seems to truly sense his father’s pain, May December paints an infected portrait. Open wounds are covered in bandaids where they bleed and fester and the victim’s only outlet is to hand delicate things with the gentleness he never received.
May December is a remarkable feat of filmmaking where the direction, writing, and performances all seek the same goal and tone that unsettles and scratches and weasels its way under our skin. Twinged with dark comedy that, combined with the trauma of these characters, manifests in a camp-infused drama, the balance of tone and atmosphere is superb. Nothing is as it seems and all is not well, and the film forces that knowledge onto us with imagery and casual line readings that knock the wind out of us before making us laugh due to its brazenness and hostility.
Melton breaks our heart, Moore’s Gracie sickens, and we take pleasure in Portman’s performance as a woman unhinged, looking for the role of a lifetime no matter the destruction it causes. Gracie and Elizabeth are two sides of the same coin as two women deeply unaware of their own narcissism and the way in which they’ll slither and strangle any source of life that threatens their own vanity. Haynes has crafted a masterful, scathing work that picks apart the worst parts of human nature while maintaining an acidic sense of humor, and it will stick with you.
May December premieres in limited theaters November 17 before streaming on Netflix December 1. Watch the trailer below.
May December - 9/10