There’s a postmodernist horror movie about performance as predation hidden beneath the semiotician’s gaze in Todd Haynes’ May December, a complex drama that’s intrinsically intimate and yet also detached, at times almost clinical. The director is poking around in territory that’s familiar to him — self-knowledge and public perception, identity and duality, transparency and performance, social norms and the sexual outlaw. But the emotional volatility of the story ends up being somewhat muted by the approach, likely making this a tough sell beyond Haynes’ devoted admirers.
What will give the film a significant degree of traction, however, are the riveting performances of Natalie Portman and frequent Haynes muse Julianne Moore, as two women at cross purposes, one seeking to excavate the past and another who has spent two decades endeavoring to bury it. An astonishing monologue delivered by Portman into a mirror in particular demands to be seen. But both leads do transfixing work with characters who constantly reveal different sides of themselves, which is fitting given that one of Haynes’ acknowledged inspirations was Bergman’s Persona.
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Press notes for the film make no mention of it, but the root of the story recalls the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a Washington State schoolteacher who became a registered sex offender and did time after pleading guilty to the second-degree rape of a 13-year-old boy from her sixth grade class. Their story became a tabloid sensation in the late ‘90s, with feverish headlines about rape and romance (the latter fueled by the insistence of both parties that the relationship was consensual).
Like Letourneau, Moore’s character, Gracie Atherton-Yoo, was in her mid-30s when she was caught having sex in a pet store stockroom with her Korean American co-worker Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), at that time 13. She gave birth to their first child while in prison and they later married. Their case scandalized the nation, giving them a degree of notoriety from which they have been in retreat ever since. However, selling exclusive wedding photos to a tabloid did help finance their house in Savannah, Georgia. Two decades on, the hate-mail deliveries of boxed feces are more infrequent, but haven’t stopped entirely.
Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, an actress preparing to take on the role of Gracie in a movie, who travels to Savannah to shadow her and Joe and study the life they’ve built together, aiming to bring truth to her performance. It’s assumed that Gracie hopes the project will correct some of the falsehoods still out there, and that she and Joe are being compensated for their life rights. But given that Gracie has evidently been burned many times (“Remember Judge Judy?”) and how reluctant she is to reflect on the past, the failure of Samy Burch’s screenplay to explain why access is being granted represents a slight hole.
From the start, Haynes toys with the way stories like that of Gracie and Joe are received and interpreted by the public at large, in particular with his use of music. He punctuates scenes — at times in humorously subversive ways that flirt with melodrama or soap — with the portentous opening motif of Michel Legrand’s baroque-inspired score for Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between.
Elizabeth first meets the couple at a barbecue in their yard, to which she shows up with a regifted bottle of wine from the management welcome package at her swanky accommodations. Gracie has imagined a woman sitting there silently judging her from behind her sunglasses, and a protective friend asks Elizabeth to be kind, telling her, “It really feels like things just settled down. And now y’all are makin’ a movie.”
Elizabeth presents herself as a nonjudgmental ally, initially asking not-too-invasive questions and busily taking notes on every little detail. But when her questions start straying outside the two-year time frame of the movie, Gracie gets defensive, introducing a brittle edge into her exchanges with the actress. Still, she shares her makeup techniques, brings Elizabeth along to her flower-arranging class and later invites her to follow her baking technique for the cakes she sells in the community.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth begins interviewing other people connected with Gracie, including her first husband Tom Atherton (D.W. Moffet), who starts out amiably enough but becomes uncomfortable when getting down to the details. She also talks to Gracie’s lawyer Morris (Lawrence Arancio), who reveals that local acceptance of Gracie isn’t quite what it seems. Elizabeth also meets Gracie’s eldest son with Tom, Georgie (Cory Michael Smith, making the most of just a couple scenes), a sassy gay singer who claims his mother ruined his life.
But the most illuminating glimpses come from spending time with Gracie herself. One terrific scene in a clothing store is cleverly shot by DP Christopher Blauvelt — stepping in for Haynes’ longtime cinematographer Ed Lachmann, due to the latter’s injury — to put Elizabeth between two Gracies thanks to a shop mirror. She demonstrates her bluntly critical side with an indirect barb about the body of her daughter Mary (Elizabeth Yu). Moore is delicious letting that same harsh edge come through when Elizabeth rubs her the wrong way.
Mary and her twin brother Charlie (Gabriel Chung) are about to graduate high school and go off to college. That impending empty-nest change seems to weigh heavily on Joe especially, along with thoughts about the past raised by Elizabeth’s presence.
Unlike Gracie, who has the release valve of occasional crying jags, Joe has not fully processed what happened. While the filmmakers don’t condone Gracie’s behavior, they don’t villainize her either. But there’s a subtle sense of Joe treating her like the grownup and vice versa — the hints of patronizing attitude are almost imperceptible in Moore’s expert line readings — meaning Gracie wrote the official narrative on how their relationship got started.
The fundamental difference between Gracie and Elizabeth is established when the former expresses her preference not to dwell on the past and the latter admits she finds it useful to reflect on earlier choices and mistakes. Gracie appears not to have ever fully understood that what she did was wrong, though she points out that while she may be naïve, she’s not insecure.
The stealth monster in all this is Elizabeth, with Portman deftly balancing the character’s polished interpersonal skills with her ravenous ambition, making every nugget of information and every behavioral clue fair game as research material. In one early giveaway moment, she visits the pet store where Gracie and Joe were caught in the act, parking herself in the stockroom doorway and writhing with imagined sexual pleasure, recalling the more demented extremes of Portman’s Black Swan turn. You might wish for more scenes of that tenor, giving the movie a more vital pulse.
The most shocking developments show Elizabeth’s willingness to prey on Joe’s vulnerability in a scene that brings a welcome temperature increase and a hint of lurid Single White Female creepiness. Even worse is what immediately follows, when she quite literally establishes that she’s the grownup. The movie is not the best advertisement for the humanity of actors.
Melton very much looks the part, with a particular kind of beauty that still carries clear traces of his teenage face, even if the limits of his range show in some of the more emotional scenes. To be fair though, there aren’t many young actors who wouldn’t be outclassed by Portman and Moore. The turbulence uncorked in Gracie and Joe’s marriage threatens serious damage, but somehow the film remains too restrained to be dramatically satisfying.
The lead actors ensure that it’s always fascinating, but despite the raw nature of the wounds reopened, it’s all a bit glacial. Blauvelt’s camera gets in close at regular intervals to the lush vegetation from which Joe gathers tiny eggs for his hobby of breeding monarch butterflies. Those images hint at a hothouse atmosphere of which the rather academic May December could have used a bit more.
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