Thursday, November 16, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

Starring Natalie Portman as Julianne Moore.

“Peace is sitting on a lake in the summertime,” reads Elizabeth (Natalie Portman). “Peace is a Coca-Cola on a hot summer day. Peace is being with you.” Scrawled in pastel marker on pink construction paper, the poem is one of Gracie’s (Julianne Moore) most important keepsakes from Joe (Charles Melton), who composed it for her in the seventh grade. When he was in the seventh grade, that is, and she was a thirty-six year-old married mother of three who was very likely already carrying his child. Twenty years after their affair rocked their shoreside Savannah community, television star Elizabeth stands in the family kitchen, reading the poem as she prepares to play Gracie in a film adaptation. “The assignment was ‘What is peace?’” concludes Gracie, who apparently felt the artifact required further illumination. That’s Gracie, though, a high-tension bundle of neuroses so brittle that a strong wind may shatter her entirely. Though plainly in denial about the way her crimes have destabilized nearly everyone in her orbit, Gracie’s naivety seems shockingly genuine.
But that’s par for the course in the Todd Haynes universe, a place rarely weighed down by an overabundance of self-awareness. The Safe and Carol director clearly delights in forcing the audience to confront our toxic contradictions — our tendency to “stare directly at the sun but never in the mirror,” as a certain blonde songstress might say — while allowing his characters to coast blissfully down a river of their own ignorance. Written by Samy Burch from a story by Haynes and Alex Mechanik, May December is no exception, a tale that examines not only Gracie’s constructed reality but, more crucially, Elizabeth’s intense — and often insidious — desire to recreate it through the artifice of performance. As she scans over tabloid headlines and conducts uncomfortable interviews, the actress surmises the obvious: Gracie was an emotionally-stunted adult (a result of fraternal sexual abuse, according to her son, Georgie [Cory Michael Smith]) who took advantage of a child and coped with her indiscretions by sealing them both in an impenetrable domestic cocoon.
Joe paid the heaviest price, of course, now mid-thirties and trapped in a relationship he lacked the emotional agency to begin in the first place. Looking about the same age as his son, Charlie (Gabriel Chung) — a visual dynamic Haynes can’t help but lean into during a warm and revealing rooftop pot-smoking scene — Joe has assimilated his shame and funneled it into a quiet life of passive acceptance, raising monarch butterflies — perhaps the one instance in which Haynes is laying it on a little too thick — and enduring his wife’s histrionics with as much grace and dignity as possible. Though he maintains a furtive text flirtation with a fellow lepidopterist (It’s okay to look that up; I had to), it’s not until Elizabeth starts thumbing through their dirty laundry that Joe earnestly considers the possibility that he can actually change this status quo. Though Haynes, Portman, and Moore will put May December in awards contention almost by default, Charles Melton is its secret weapon, delivering a performance that simmers with unrealized adolescent fury.
As good as Melton and Moore are, though (Moore, in particular, is sharpshooting some of the best comedic moments of her career), their family saga is largely window dressing for Haynes’ real fascination: Elizabeth. She arrives as a stock audience surrogate, an outsider whose gradual assimilation creates a narrative bond between the film and its viewers. In learning to imitate and — allegedly, at least at first — empathize with Gracie, Elizabeth is supposed to reveal the great truths and guide the other characters to catharsis. That’s too easy for Haynes, though, too contradictory to the self-defeating human nature he’s working so hard to depict. No, Elizabeth is in turns sympathetic and parasitic, seeking not to humanize Gracie through her depiction but to tap into what she can only perceive as the perverse glee of sexual manipulation. Elizabeth uses a studied thespian grace as a smokescreen for seduction, leaning on Joe’s relative inexperience and, in one hilarious scene, a high school drama student’s insincere questioning, as masturbatory inspiration.
None of this is “ha-ha” funny on the surface, of course, and there’s a deep sadness to Joe and Gracie’s life that should haunt us, but Haynes’ tonal precision elevates May December into the kind of camp masterpiece that forces us to confront some pretty disgusting truths about ourselves in order to properly appreciate the wavelength on which its operating. Marcelo Zarvos’ clamorous piano refrain, for example, storms in as if to punctuate dramatic intervals — such as Elizabeth faking ecstasy on the stockroom floor where Joe and Gracie first consummated their affair — but ends up making them all the funnier by exaggeration. There would be something alluring about being in that room, Haynes dares us to admit, and maybe we’re not quite as virtuous as the neighbors who still leave boxes of shit on Gracie’s front porch. Maybe the line between experience and performance is as thin as Elizabeth thinks (“Am I pretending I’m experiencing pleasure, or am I pretending I’m not experiencing pleasure?”). Haynes certainly seems to think so. How about you?

May December is opens in select theaters on November 17 and comes to Netflix on December 1st.

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