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"May December" starts with a flurry of confusing activity in two different locations. A glamorous woman (Natalie Portman) checks into a boutique hotel, murmuring into her Bluetooth. Another woman (Julianne Moore) is in the final stages of planning a get-together at her waterfront home. She opens the fridge and stares into it. The camera then pushes in on her face as the music surges alarmingly. The effect is so dramatic you would not be surprised if a severed head was inside the refrigerator. This is the first real announcement of what the movie will be doing and how it will be doing it. To no one in particular, the woman says flatly, "I don't think we have enough hot dogs."
Todd Haynes sees the horror in the every day, the emptiness in ritual, the void underneath conformist trappings. He was shaped, in many ways, by 1950s melodramas and all that psychosexual Technicolor torment. These things are not just stylistic flourishes. They express emotional states of being. Haynes sees the humor in all these juxtapositions but knows the horror is real. The situation in "May December" is so serious it feels dangerous to even joke about it. This sense of danger is part of the movie's perverse fun. "May December" is one of Haynes' most unbalancing and provocative films.
Elizabeth Berry (Portman) is a television actress who arrived in Savannah, Georgia, to meet Gracie Atherton (Moore), whom she will be playing in an upcoming "indie" movie. Gracie has agreed—inexplicably, once you know the facts—to allow this stranger to hang out with her family for a week or so, the same week her twins will graduate from high school. What could this unremarkable woman, whose main concern is a lack of hot dogs, have ever done to warrant a movie being made about her? Turns out, 20 years earlier, Gracie, a 36-year-old married woman with kids, had an "affair" with a fellow employee at a pet shop. This fellow employee, named Joe, was in the seventh grade. Gracie went to prison, where she had Joe's baby behind bars. The tabloids, unsurprisingly, went berserk for the story. After serving her time, Gracie and Joe married and have been together ever since. They have three children and are about to be empty nesters. Joe (Charles Melton) is now 36, the same age as Gracie was when they first met in the pet shop.
Samy Burch's script is somewhat inspired by Mary Kay Letourneau, but "May December" adds layers upon layers of strangeness and subjectivity. The film could not be less interested in "what happened" or "why." "May December" refuses to make declarative statements. Every time you think there is solid ground, the tectonic plates shift, leaving you grasping empty air. The events of "May December" are so objectively appalling they scream for a moral judgment to be handed down, and yet the deeper it goes, the more confusing things get. It's unsettling to be confused in a film about this subject.
One of the feints at work is how our perceptions of Elizabeth change. At first, Elizabeth seems like a nice enough woman, doing her due diligence for a role she's excited about. From the brief hints we get, her career is less than inspiring, so she's ambitious to do something challenging. Because Gracie and Joe's past is so notorious and everyone clams up when the subject is raised, Elizabeth is an innocent strolling through a strange world. She is us. But then she is invited to speak with a high school drama club, and things take such a bizarre turn during the Q&A period that it's one of the most uncomfortable scenes in a film wall to wall with uncomfortable scenes. You have to completely re-think Elizabeth. It won't be the last time.
Almost imperceptibly, Elizabeth mirrors Gracie. She mirrors her hand gestures, lisping voice, posture, fashion choices, and lipstick shade. There are multiple scenes involving mirrors, one where Elizabeth is bookended by two Gracies, all three sitting in the same way. There is a long "Persona"-like scene where the two characters stare directly into the camera, side by side, Gracie putting on makeup as Elizabeth watches her voraciously. Elizabeth's quest to "become" Gracie is, ultimately, predatory, another strange element in a movie about an actual legal predator. Portman's work here is very tricky because it happens by degrees. Is she transforming because she's "becoming" Gracie, or is the real Elizabeth finally being revealed? Portman's reading of the line "This is what grown-ups do" was such a gut punch I never recovered my equilibrium.
Julianne Moore's performance is so interesting because, at a certain point, you have to face the possibility that there isn't more to Gracie than meets the eye. She doesn't feel she did anything wrong; she loves her husband. She talks to Elizabeth, having no idea how "off" she seems, considering the circumstances. "I was very sheltered, and he matured very fast," she says. Does she have any idea how that sounds? If you're looking for answers, Julianne Moore is not here to provide them on a platter. It's fascinating, bold work.
Charles Melton, as Joe, is the heart and soul of this sick system. Joe spends his free time monitoring his butterfly collection and drinking beer. Gracie treats him like a child, giving him chores to do. His body language is not eloquent. He seems stuck in place. Melton is a strong, tall man, but it's like Joe is invisible. He doesn't take up any space, emotional or physical. There's an incredible scene between Joe and his teenage son where Joe breaks down in tears, saying, "I can't tell if we're connecting or if I'm creating a bad memory for you." It's heartbreaking. Gracie and Elizabeth are both dominant and controlling, and it's easy to forget the carnage Gracie has caused. The fact that Joe is now basically a hen-pecked husband adds to the human tragedy.
The aforementioned score, melodramatic to the point of hysteria, is Marcelo Zarvos’ adaptation of Michel Legrand’s score for Joseph Losey's 1971 film “The Go-Between,” where a breezy beautiful Julie Christie befriends a lonely schoolboy, using him to get to her secret lover, another film about a May December "friendship" with long-lasting consequences. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, a frequent collaborator with Kelly Reichardt, films Savannah and its soft light almost like it's not a real place, with real textures and surfaces. The light is bright but not warm. The scenery is beautiful, but the beauty is somehow irrelevant.
The "trappings" of the life on display—the house, trees, waterfront—have no real hold on anybody. They are not stable. No character has absorbed the surroundings or been absorbed by them. The house/water/trees may as well be a matte painting for all its meaning to the characters. Haynes used similar effects in his Sirkean tribute "Far from Heaven," but there, the soundstage aesthetics reflected the characters' passions and repressions. In "May December," the opposite is the case. Imagine a life so disconnected from reality that the trees aren't real to the people who live beneath them.
This brings me to something I keep thinking about. From the very first scene, when we see Elizabeth taking her suitcase out of her rental car, we hear the noises of the town: a marching band at a nearby college, cars passing. A group of people on a walking tour of Savannah strolls by, the tour guide providing historical facts. The walking tour will return. In almost every exterior scene in "May December," even at night, a walking tour meanders by in the background, the tour guide droning on about some horrible event that happened right here in this very spot. History is all around us, but it's just background noise. Humans cluster together to hear horror tales from long ago, relishing in others' misfortunes. We push to the front of the crowd to get a better spot at the execution, and afterward, we move on, sated. Until next time. Elizabeth's voracious expression is our own.
In theaters today. On Netflix on December 1st.
Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry
Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo
Charles Melton as Joe Yoo
Gabriel Chung as Charlie Atherton-Yoo
Elizabeth Yu as Mary Atherton-Yoo
Piper Curda as Honor Atherton-Yoo
Cory Michael Smith as Georgie Atherton
D.W. Moffett as Tom Atherton
Chris Tenzis as Aaron
Kelvin Han Yee as Joe Yoo Sr.
Andrea Frankle as Rhonda
Joan Reilly as Lydia