The director’s new film Todd Haynes, May December, premiered at the Canne Festival, announces its intentions in advance. Over the opening credits, the film’s soundtrack – partly by Marcelo Zarvos, partly adapted by Zarvos from Michel Legrand’s compositions forThe Go-Between – gsets the stage for a film that is half Old Hollywood pulp and half 1990s erotic thriller. A kind of tawdry melodrama that’s self-aware, but not so archaic that it turns into a meta-script.
Haynes is not known as a comedy director. Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, a Juilliard-trained actress who stars in a hit television series and is looking for an independent film role. She travels to Savannah, Georgia to meet her subject, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), a baker and former tabloid celebrity who was jailed for child rape after engaging in a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old boy, Joe, who worked at the pet store she ran. It was a huge story in the 90s, just like teacher Mary Kay Letourneau’s in our world.
Letourneau and the boy involved eventually had children and married, separating shortly before Letourneau’s death in 2020. May December finds Gracie and Joe (played by Charles MeltonOf Riverdale ) in a not dissimilar circumstance. Twenty years after the scandal, they are married and apparently satisfied. Occasionally, they are harassed or watched on sight. But otherwise, they manage to be active and relatively welcome members of their community.
Gracie is wary of Elizabeth, but she and Joe have become convinced that she will tell their story correctly. This means that Elizabeth and the filmmakers will gloss over true events, focusing instead on the true and enduring love the pair have enjoyed since Gracie’s release from prison. The couple’s twins, who seem quite well adjusted (the same can’t be said of Gracie’s other children), are about to head off to college, leaving Joe – just 36 or so – to grapple with the life of a nest empty.
As destabilizing as her presence may be, Elizabeth actually only opens existing cracks in this difficult relationship. so far sustained by Joe’s unnerving (but understandable) cluelessness and Gracie’s rigid handling of domestic routine. Gracie is a weirdo, prone to emotional swings and adept at giving sour compliments in reverse. No wonder Elizabeth immediately fell in love in a predatory way. What a character. And what a story, a pathetic comedy that actually could be (indeed, almost certainly is) a tragedy.
With a lightness not quite typical of Haynes, may December fascinatingly explores its ethical dimensions, with one foot firmly planted in the field while the other tries to figure out where to land. In moments, it feels like the film turns into a thriller, with Elizabeth’s asthma and the heavy foreshadowing of Gracie’s love of hunting. At other times, the film could turn into a solemn drama about humble people trying to live a decent life in the years following the media frenzy.
Ultimately, the film is neither a thriller nor a drama: the screenplay by Samy Burch teems with idiosyncratic humor, not quite alla John Watersbut somehow on track. Toning down the comedy, at least in part, is the film’s timid compassion for these people, for the way their lives have been healed from the horrific transgression of the past. They are stuck in a sad illusion. From this point of view, perhaps only Elizabeth, played so shrewdly by Portman, is the truly cynical one, a vampire artist who moves in these strange waters to study the reaction of the fish.
Perhaps in this sense the film is a satire of the entertainment industry: the vain and manipulative Elizabeth represents all the Hollywood exploitation of real life. In one scene, Elizabeth visits the local high school drama club to have a little Q&A with the students. He soon launches into an indulgent monologue about sex scenes (definitely in an attempt to get the attention of a particular guy, perhaps to try his hand at this type of seduction in passing, obviously for research purposes) before insulting Gracie in the face to the daughter. Any reassurances Elizabeth has given that she is there to objectively observe this family are quickly dispelled. She’s come to watch the freaks on their show, with the knowledge that fans of Elizabeth will one day pay to see her curated recreation of her.
But how much sympathy does Gracie really deserve? May December offers a complicated moral equation: even the film itself is a dilemma. How much should we laugh at this or that? This assessment will have to be done with the eye of the beholder. TOOn first viewing, however, I found May December an evil and complex delight, strange and intelligent and human enough to save himself from sadness. His two lead performances are scathing and funny, while Melton deftly provides the film’s heart and heartbreak. May December it feels like a haul back to Haynes’ roots, an elegant character study that, when inspected more closely, might actually have an entire culture—its art, its sexual mores—in its nimble mind.
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Source: Vanity Fair
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