By Lê Dũng
Todd Haynes, who is best known as the director of Carol (2015), the movie that is replayed again and again in my apartment every Christmas, is back again with another movie that focuses on a relationship with an age gap. But this time, instead of a heartbreaking lesbian road trip, we are forced to confront the damage our obsession with the “groomer” brought to all those involved.
The film’s title alone – May December – which references a Kurt Weil song, “September Song”, in which the narrator is a young man courting an older woman, is a fitting introduction to the main theme of the story.
May December follows three main characters: Elizabeth (played by Natalie Portman), and a married couple Gracie (played by Julianne Moore) and Joe (played by Charales Melton of Riverdale fame). In order to make a movie about their past (which was implied to be an artsy indie A24-esque production), Elizabeth, a famous young actress follows Gracie and Joe through their everyday life. More than twenty years ago, Joe, then thirteen, was involved in a love affair with Gracie, who was then 36. They were caught, Gracie was arrested, and they found themselves in the middle of a nationwide scandal. Elizabeth’s goal is to follow Gracie around and try to understand this “evil” woman to portray her in a new indie movie. Elizabeth’s investigation reveals the cracks of this now seemingly “perfect” family, and all the broken parts that are the result of what happened twenty years ago.
The movie is filmed in the usual style of Todd Haynes – it is carefully crafted in every single shot, keeping the audience in a tight grip and forcing them to follow every single movement on screen (those who have watched Dark Waters (2019) or Carol will understand what I am talking about). The story is solid, and as its layers are peeled back and exposed, we are confronted with the broken attitude of our society when it comes to abusive relationships: the tabloid, the sexploitation movies being made after, the neglection and brokenness of many adults in this story, the groomer who is still living freely and proudly with her victim, as well as the shattered life that this “scandal” left behind. In this, Charles Melton is the clear star in this movie: he plays the part of the broken man, an abuse victim who is forever stuck in the grasp of his wife since he was 13, with no way to grow up. He spends the day taking care of the insects (the chrysalis and the butterflies imagery are shown all throughout the story, but I found this metaphor too on the nose to be taken seriously) and he is completely controlled by his wife. At one point, there is a fight between him and Gracie and we see him cowering in an attempt to stand up to her: it is heartbreaking and almost scary to watch.
The latter part of the story is taken over by Elizabeth, as she ‘copies’ Gracie, witnessing the horror of her action imposed on people around her. Elizabeth also “gets in character” more: she copies Gracie’s make-up, she flirts with her husband, she can’t help but smile flirtily at the middle-schooler she walks by. At one point, she talks to a group of middle-schoolers about the sex scenes she had to do and how “real” she felt it was to be able to do it: and one might wonder how she would approach this upcoming performance, where she had to play a groomer in a relationship with a teenage boy. It is perverted but comical at the same time, and Natalie Portman, while still delivering a solid performance, offers a comically simplistic interpretation of the character. We are confronted with the question of whether Elizabeth is going to do justice to the movie, or glamorize the love affair, just as the tabloids before it. The last scene of the movie basically answers this question.
Overall, May December is still a solid movie with a strong cast (especially Melton). While having some clear flaws, such as its simplistic approaches and a fractured story, it offers Haynes’s insight into our obsession with abuse and relationships, either through the tabloids or by the so-called “serious” artists. It may not be Haynes’s best work in recent times, but overall it is still a very good movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen if possible.
This review was written for the exclusive preview held on October 17th, 2023 in the Ketelhuis in Amsterdam. A special thank you to Inge de Bruijn and Triple P Entertainment who made this possible.