Filmmaker Todd Haynes specializes in personal adult dramas like Carol and Far From Heaven that render intimate portraits of complex people in surprisingly likable fashion. But with his new film, the campy comedy-drama May December, Haynes takes it to the next level.
The closeup analysis of his subjects remains intact, but rather than make you sympathetic to his characters, he renders you properly fascinated as well as slightly disturbed. The film, which is about an actress studying to portray a woman who had an affair with a young boy, opened the 61st New York Film Festival and is one of the most compelling you will see all year.
May December opens with Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry, who’s a successful, beautiful middle-aged actress who is studying for her next role. She travels to Georgia to meet Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Juliane Moore), the woman she is going to portray in an upcoming film. Twenty years prior, Gracie was convicted of statutory rape for the affair she had with a young teenage boy, Joe. Joe, portrayed by the handsome and boyish Charles Melton, is now Gracie’s husband; they have three children.
You can surely imagine what’s next—in diving deep into Gracie’s past and current life, Elizabeth needs to and does become her. The title of the story may refer to the salacious relationship between the much older Gracie and the young Joe, or it may refer to the two women themselves. This titular sleight of hand may be predictable, but it actually serves to distract you from what comes next.
In that opening scene, Gracie’s daughters fawn over Elizabeth, noting they’d never met someone from TV before. Seriously, she retorts: “Not counting your parents?” In other scenes, Elizabeth awkwardly recreates what she imagines to have been Gracie and Joe’s sexual encounter in the storage room of a pet shop. She interviews, journalistic-style, the bumbling witnesses of the affair, including the shop owner and Gracie’s traumatized rocker son from her first marriage.
The entire experience is filled with wickedly clever, amusing tidbits delivered deadpan, somewhat awkwardly lightening the actually heavy proceedings. But that humor, too, does not really prepare you for the payoffs—and therein lies the quiet brilliance of Samy Burch’s May December script and Haynes’ direction. At heart, it is a subtle but forceful psychological analysis of what made these people tick. The story is roughly based on the real life case of a woman, who had her victim’s child during her imprisonment, and later left prison only to marry the man and spend most of her life with him. May December effectively conveys the disturbances of the relationship, as well as the humanity and unexpected humor, through a series of set pieces told through the excuse of the actress Elizabeth working on her role.
Moore plays Gracie with her characteristic exactitude. Gracie is naïve, though old enough now to realize that this has always been so. She is also fragile and sheltered, though with enough of a critical kick that comes from Southern upbringing. Joe, now a grown man in his mid-thirties known, is still indefatigable attracted to her. Joe “grew up too fast,” Gracie explains, due to an absent father and raising his siblings. He also felt as if Gracie “saw him.” It sounds cliched when, but it does not feel cliched as portrayed by these talented actors—including Melton—and the equally gifted filmmakers. By the end of it, you feel as if you know these characters from the inside out, including the uncomfortable ick that naturally comes with the territory.
Perhaps most brilliantly, the largest source of this ick is Elizabeth herself, who in her devoted determination to become like her subject loses herself entirely into her persona, without any moral judgment. Adding yet another layer of complexity, it is clear that May December has no interest in either sensationalizing nor romanticizing these people. It passes as a neutral observation through the eyes of the inexplicably sober Elizabeth, while disguising an unhealthy fascination with its subject matter—again, like the actress that is the lead character in the film.
May December is almost a pitch perfect movie. Haynes’ camera is naturally placed at all times, juxtaposing Elizabeth and Gracie in front or next to each other, or moving the characters to the side to frame the emptiness of their homes or environments. Christopher Blauvelt takes over Haynes’ typical cinematographer Edward Lachman, and does a striking job of squaring the intimate portraits as well. Where May December falters —below the line or otherwise—is in the Marcelo Zarvos score, which plays like a noir thriller. One gets the notion that Zarvos and Haynes decided to make the score not fit at all, as part of the film’s campier elements, but it’s too loud and distracting to serve its likely intended purpose.
Beyond that one tonal misstep, May December is one of the most enthralling and convincing motion pictures of the film festival season. A rich layer of script and subtle acting, of key but revealing moments, are interwoven to tell a powerful story that forces you to abandon your various zones of comfort. While most of the plot points may be foreseeable, none of their emotional gravitas is. The story of two people of vastly different ages is improbably bridged, and your complicity in that endeavor may prove everlasting.
May December was the Opening Night Film for the 61st New York Film Festival and will be released by Netflix on November 17, 2023.