Directed by Todd Haynes, May December is his latest feature that sees him reunite with frequent collaborator Julianne Moore. The film follows actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) as she travels to Georgia to study middle-aged Gracie (Moore) in preparation for a role in a TV movie.
Set in sun-kissed Georgia, Elizabeth is a woman on a mission – to research someone ahead of her next starring role. When she first meets Gracie and her husband Joe (Charles Melton) at a family barbecue, she discovers the couple has received a box of poo on their doorstep. However, it is not until several minutes in that we understand why. Amid press cuttings and archive video, the film reveals the truth – Gracie was convicted for grooming Joe when he was a child and was imprisoned while pregnant with his baby. As soon as this dark cloud comes into the picture, screenwriter Samy Burch never lets it leave the vicinity as it sombrely challenges the audience’s perception of unsympathetic characters.
Haynes’ direction treats the audience as an outsider – we know that their relationship is the result of a crime, but Burch is bold enough to keep it from being discussed out loud due to a quiet acceptance from their circle of friends who choose to focus on their solidity as a couple. Through cryptic dialogue among supporting characters, Burch’s screenplay builds tension that stems from a quiet sense of frustration – there are questions to ask but we never get the full truth of what happened. Instead, there is a constant lack of accountability.
The tension leads to layers of intrigue in a crime that, in Gracie’s eyes, was sensationalised into a forbidden romance. But in contrast to the “scandalous” relationships in Haynes’ previous films Far from Heaven and Carol, the relationship between Joe and Gracie is public knowledge so it makes her a constant target in the eyes of society – something that she doesn’t seem to understand, even after a spell in prison. This is exacerbated by everyone tiptoeing around Gracie in case she becomes upset. Her denial about her actions creates a pitiable character but this quickly evaporates upon her condescending remarks towards her own children and husband, to whom she is more of a mother than a wife. Despite the deepening discomfort of the narrative, Moore beautifully anchors it by portraying a wolf in sheep’s clothing – fragile on the outside yet manipulative on the inside.
Elizabeth is no saint either. A method actress sees her push aside her TV show career for something more raw and provocative, and her persistence in examining Gracie’s life (and essentially, her relationship with Joe) borders on an obsession to capture an accurate portrayal. Though she acts as the audience’s eyes into the couple, Elizabeth’s narcissism sees her unapologetically split open the cracks in their relationship while forcing them to confront their feelings about the scandal. Portman provides an excellent foil for Moore, who acts innocent and elegantly in public but is unafraid to intrude to reach perfection.
In the middle of the women’s challenging dynamic is Joe, who mostly and frustratingly potters around and accommodates Gracie’s emotional moments (while having a secret relationship with an unknown person). Thankfully, he avoids being brushed aside when he is confronted by his teenage children graduating from school and heading to college – life events that he has implicitly missed out on and is now realising their significance. This allows Melton to convey confusion and turmoil in Joe’s increasingly embittered state, allowing him to confront his demons and the unsettling truth of his relationship.
The heady combination of Marcelo Zarvos’ music, Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography and Haynes’ direction exacerbates the tension between the core characters, using intimate settings such as family dinners and restaurant bathrooms to become inescapable environments for awkward conversations and sharp-ended barbs. The use of mirrors is especially noteworthy as they visually question what is the truth behind a person. Therefore, the audience never feels like they see or hear the truth yet the drama between them keeps the narrative going.
In his most provocative film to date, Haynes’ May December is a chilling yet visually intriguing drama that not only captures the audience’s attention but also showcases Portman and Moore’s electric performances.
May December is out in UK cinemas on 17 November and Sky Cinemas on 8 December.
Director: Todd Haynes, Samy Burch (screenwriter)
Stars: Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, Charles Melton
Runtime: 113 minutes