You never know exactly what to expect from Todd Haynes, which makes him one of our most valuable American filmmakers. He has a sense of humor, but he doesn’t coast on any overt, adorable quirks. He thinks in layers, but he knows that even movies that make us think also have to hit us in the pleasure zone. The glorious Douglas Sirkian extravaganza Far from Heaven, a respectful but fully alive reading of Mildred Pierce, a documentary about the Velvet Underground that covers not just the band’s history but a broad swath of the cultural history around it: if you’re a certain kind of person, the more Haynes you get, the more you want.
Haynes’ May December, playing in competition here in Cannes, wasn’t what I was expecting—but then, I should have known better. In this twisty, tricky drama, shot through with dark, glittering threads of comedy, Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, an actor and producer researching her next role: that of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), a woman who, roughly two decades earlier, at age 36, had shocked the world with her romantic liaison with a seventh grader, whom she eventually married. Now Gracie and her husband Joe (Charles Melton) live in coastal Savannah, the place where the scandal occurred. “Why should we be the ones to leave?” Gracie asks Elizabeth incredulously, suggesting that she doesn’t really care how her neighbors view her, though we come to see that deep down, she does.
Gracie and Joe have raised three children together—one is already in college, and the other two are about to start. Gracie also has children from a previous marriage, including Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), a loose cannon with a sinister manipulative streak. Elizabeth arrives in Savannah to spend time with Gracie and her family, intending to soak up personal details about her subject as a means of shaping the performance she’ll eventually craft. She sees how Gracie approaches life, including the sordidness of her own story, with a kind of nervous wonderment. Gracie seems eggshell-fragile, and a bit dithery, but she believes so wholeheartedly in her union with her much-younger husband that we too begin to see it as a precious pre-ordained state of being.
May December has obvious parallels with the story of Mary Kay Letourneau and the 12-year-old boy, Vili Fualaau, with whom she became involved. Letourneau served time in prison after being convicted as a sex offender, marrying Fualaau upon her release; the marriage lasted 14 years. But May December is its own fictitious creation, and it neither defends nor decries Gracie’s actions. Gracie and Joe began their affair after she’d hired him as a part-time helper at the pet store where she worked. (In a late, sinister-hilarious scene, we see a re-enactment of just how the initial seduction might have happened. It involves a snake.) The romance upends Gracie’s life, tearing apart her marriage and alienating her from her children, though she adamantly claims she’s still close with them. As Moore plays her, Gracie is both enigmatic and steely. She zigzags between weepily clinging to her husband and controlling him with her insistence that they were destined to be together, their hearts entwined until death do them part, and beyond. She wields her belief in true love like a hatchet. At one point she fixes Elizabeth in her icy gaze and explains, “I am naïve. I always have been. In a way it’s been a gift.”
Meanwhile, Elizabeth watches Gracie silently, taking mental notes, seemingly empathizing with her professed fragility—Portman makes a fine, doe-eyed detective of the psyche. But Elizabeth isn’t what she seems either. In one scene, Gracie shows Elizabeth how she makes up her face each day—she turns to dab some color on Elizabeth’s cheeks, a gesture that’s both tender and proprietary. Suddenly, they’re sisters under the skin, trading silent secrets about their own treachery.
Joe is the pawn caught in the middle. He distracts himself by taking tender care of butterfly chrysalises, which will eventually morph into monarchs. In an obvious metaphorical gesture, he sets one of these newly minted wonders free. Flinging off joyfully into the sky, it’s a fluttery placeholder for the life Joe has missed out on, having become responsible for Gracie’s emotional state—forget, even, the sexual component—at a far-too-young age.
But May December isn’t Joe’s story; he’s practically a footnote. The real crackle, and the prickliest friction, is between Elizabeth and Gracie, who circle each other like wary warrior queens. May December is a story about what women take from one another, but also about how they connect, for better or worse. The movie wobbles a bit on the way to its wily, mischievous finish. It’s as if Haynes can’t quite decide if he wants the picture to be cagily cerebral or a juicy, soapy modern-day melodrama, so he splits the difference. Yet his attentive craftsmanship, plus the fact that these two actresses are clearly having a cheerfully perverse blast, keep the movie clicking. May December could have more fire; it could be even more twisted. But it’s seductive enough to keep us following along, one betrayal after another.
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