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May December

Todd Haynes’s superb new film
Transmission Films
by
ABR Arts 29 January 2024

May December

Todd Haynes’s superb new film
Transmission Films
by
ABR Arts 29 January 2024
Natalie Portman as Elizabeth and Julianne Moore as Gracie
Natalie Portman as Elizabeth and Julianne Moore as Gracie

Public scandals are like modern-day myths that change shape and lose fidelity the more often they are repeated. They become copies of copies, grainier yet somehow grander, wholly untethered from their time and place of origin. They are also the lifeblood of much of our current entertainment landscape, in an age when lived experience counts as valuable IP, and the truth is merely content waiting to be packaged and sold.

Todd Haynes’s superb new film May December is ostensibly based on one such scandal-turned-legend: that of Mary Kay Letourneau, the thirty-four-year-old American schoolteacher who initiated a sexual relationship with her twelve-year-old student, Vili Fualaau, in 1996, mothering two of his children and eventually marrying him after serving a seven-year prison sentence for second-degree rape. It is a horrific true story about so many lives left in ruin, but rather than join the thirty-year pile-on, May December sets its sights firmly on the institution most likely to peddle in and profit from such real-world misfortune: the entertainment industry itself.

Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, a big-name actress (best known for a hit veterinary television drama called Norah’s Ark) who travels to Savannah, Georgia, to prepare for her part in an upcoming indie film. She is set to play the young Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), now in her late fifties and still married to Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), twenty-three years her junior. These are our Letourneau and Fualaau stand-ins, although this version of the story looks a little different; Gracie and Joe are doting parents and pillars of the Savannah community (notwithstanding the occasional package of dog faeces left on their doorstep). But the presence of Berry – the kind of duplicitous method actor who is eviscerated in a New Yorker profile then wins an Oscar the following year regardless – threatens to upend their delicate domestic balance and to bring old pain to new light.

Charles Melton as Joe, Director Todd Haynes, and Julianne Moore as GracieCharles Melton as Joe, Director Todd Haynes, and Julianne Moore as Gracie

The first film written by ex-casting director Samy Burch (a career progression that may well explain her healthy suspicion towards actors), May December gleefully rejects any notion of subtlety. It borrows the broad-brushstroke stylistic qualities of Lifetime movies and soap operas – the very sensationalist trifles it sets out to skewer – and applies them knowingly and liberally. Cinematographer Chris Blauvelt captures the bleached-white sunlight and whispering Spanish moss of suburban Georgia with a grainy daytime-television brightness and generous lashings of slow zooms. The score is a combination of original compositions by Marcelo Zavros and reworkings of Michel Legrand’s music from The Go-Between (1971), which punctuates otherwise mundane interactions with near-Hitchockian levels of suspense, to rousing, often hilarious effect. The characters aren’t exactly understated, either: Gracie hunts quail with a shotgun, while Joe nurses the chrysalises of endangered butterflies, and Elizabeth makes the point of mentioning that her mother once wrote a book about epistemic relativism – the academic school of thought that argues that truth is relative. In all this excess – and in positioning itself not as a straight-laced drama but as the blackest of black comedies – May December anticipates almost any criticism you might level at it, and responds by leaning even further into its own salaciousness and absurdity.

Throughout her remarkable career, Julianne Moore has returned time and again to the role of the archetypal American housewife, and Gracie Atherton-Yoo would be a fitting final word on that front. In Moore and Haynes’s first collaboration, Safe (1995), her character, Carol, succumbed to a mysterious illness, as though poisoned by the trappings of her stereotypical home life, whereas in May December, Gracie’s domestic duties grant her endless resolve and myopic purpose. She forces unwanted baked goods on her neighbours, buys her daughters bathroom scales as graduation gifts, and pleads good-natured innocence when anyone calls her out. Portman makes a perfect foil for Moore, proving her status as one of our most captivating cinematic villainesses. At first, Elizabeth is the audience’s way in to the story of the Atherton-Yoos, a detective investigating a cold case, right down to the sunglasses and broad-brim hat she wears to the backyard barbecue where she first meets them (‘Did you crack the case?’ she’s later asked). But as she digs deeper and starts to embed herself in the local community – interviewing Gracie’s first husband (D.W. Moffett) and her eldest son from that marriage (a fleeting but compelling Cory Michael Smith) – her desire not simply to understand but to inhabit Gracie reveals her own true nature. She goes from assuring Gracie and Joe that the film project will help them feel ‘seen’ and ‘known’, to swiping through audition videos of thirteen-year-old boys and complaining to her director that they’re ‘not sexy enough’. Through Elizabeth, Haynes and Burch emphasise just how thin the line can be between abuser and profiteer, portraying Hollywood’s entire content-generating structure as exploitative at best, and predatory at worst.

None of May December’s gleefully murky melodrama would mean a thing if it didn’t have some counterpoint, something to anchor it to the essential tragedy at its core – and this is where the film’s real revelation lies. Riverdale star Charles Melton gives the breakout performance of the year as Joe Yoo, a thirty-six-year-old man frozen in his early teens, about to send his own children off to college and become an empty nester when he was never given the chance to finish growing up himself. Instead, he has been performing a role of his own for the past twenty-three years, play-acting the suburban dad, tending the grill and watching home renovation shows, and refuting any notion of victimhood – while the stilted tenor of Melton’s voice, combined with his extraordinary physical performance, practically scream the opposite. As much fun as Haynes is having with his leading ladies while they joust for main character status, he never forgets about Joe. The camera lingers on silent reaction shots of him, listening in and nodding along while others pick apart and pore over his life story. Joe naïvely hopes that Elizabeth’s movie might help the world to see his situation differently, even ‘make things easier’, but the actress’s methods only reinforce the unfortunate binary that people in abusive relationships are often faced with: you can have your story told the wrong way, by the wrong people – or you can have your story never told at all.

Even in its title, May December is a film that collapses time – the time between actions and consequences, the time between childhood and adulthood – without ever needing to do so literally. One of its most admirable features is an omission: it is told entirely without flashbacks. Mainstream awareness of therapy-speak has trained us, both as humans and audience members, to assume that every action has a definitive root cause that can be traced back and decoded. The now-ubiquitous technique of flashbacks in film and television works in tandem with this understanding. They are often the dominion of the third-act twist, when suddenly, at the eleventh hour, we are magically transported back in time to discover why a character did what they did, as though it were all predetermined by some historical pattern or defining trauma. Not so in May December; here the sting is truly in the tail, when it becomes brutally apparent just what kind of movie Elizabeth Berry has been upending all these people’s lives for.

During a drop-in to Gracie and Joe’s daughter’s high-school drama class, Elizabeth says that she is drawn to ‘grey areas’, and characters that are ‘difficult to understand’. She is searching for the root cause of Gracie’s actions – trying to go back in time as it were, to embody her all the better. A flashback would be a relief in this instance, both for Elizabeth in her search, and for us as viewers, languishing in Gracie and Joe’s world with its muggy heat and perpetual background whine of sirens and cicadas. But flashbacks are a cheat. There is no such thing in real life – no objective, permanent record to help us square away our actions. All we have are consequences, the long tail of the decisions we make and those that are made for us. If we really want to revisit the past, the best we can hope for is that somebody makes a good movie about it.

May December (Transmission Films) is on national release from 1 February 2024.

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