By Artem Varaksin
Before seeing this film, I was not aware of the expression “a May December romance,” which refers to a coupling between a youthful “May” and a waning “December-” a younger and an older individual. Such phrasing certainly undersells the complex emotions and power dynamics at the heart of such a relationship. The words themselves, appearing in the film’s title sequence, are backgrounded by flowers and butterflies, almost comically, representing lightness, frivolousness, innocence, love.
May December (dir. Todd Haynes) follows an actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who enters the everyday life of Gracie (Julianne Moore), in order to do research for a film. Gracie’s character is notable for her much-scandalized relationship with her husband Joe (Charles Melton), which began years prior when he was in middle school. Elizabeth’s role of a dispassionate onlooker begins to blur, and her curiosity, as well as her mirroring of Gracie adds a welcome meta-dynamic to an already convoluted situation.
The repercussions of the relationship do not haunt only its participants – they echo in the hushed and stunted locals of the town where the action takes place, the awkward meetings with the couples’ extended family, the bizarre bonds between Joe and his children of only a few years younger than him – and this is just scratching the surface. There is a lot more, however, that the film leaves unexplicit, emphasizing the self-continuing depth of its quasi-fictional world.
Yes, May December is a powerful and dramatically rich film. However, these dramatics occur very stealthily beneath a glossy, presentable veneer of normality. The film does not make obscenely obvious statements and does not use its characters like mouthpieces, trusting the viewer to pick up on slight hints – a turn of phrase, a direction of a gaze, etc (No wonder that Haynes studied semiotics at university). The story is given to us in glimpses but serves only as background, a transparent mist through which the film displays intense characterization that boils under the foamy surface.
Beyond the drama, May December is also billed as a comedy, and sure, there is humor weaved throughout, yet it is not guilt-free – it is the shocked, helpless laugh you exude when a couple next to you at a restaurant starts loudly arguing – the obscenity, the earnestness, the publicness of it. It is the discreet questioning of your parents about the family past’s darkest moments – the insatiable curiosity of small, unspeakable unknowns.
When you go see May December, you can expect an array of wonderfully offbeat performances, ranging from playful to genuinely tragic, a haunting musical score, and a smartly woven, modestly self-aware story that reminds one of the beautiful, manic insanity of the everyday.
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.