Todd Haynes is back, baby! After giving us the masterpiece Carol in 2015, the Safe director—whose films have usually been anything but safe—spent the intervening several years churning out the disappointing double-feature of 2017’s Wonderstruck and 2019’s Dark Waters. But he’s back on point again with May Decembera creepy and hilarious post-modern provocation from the man who once used Barbie dolls to tell the life story of Karen Carpenter.
Reuniting Haynes with his greatest on-screen collaborator, Julianne Moore, while successfully bringing Natalie Portman into the fold, it’s a reevaluation of 1990s tabloid culture that the director has pinned under his microscope this go-round. And in Haynes’s hands, we get art out of it—challenging and weird and tragic and surprising art. All making Ryan Murphy’s similarly themed American Crime Story series look like lurid puppet theater in comparison.
Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, a big Hollywood actress—she makes movies, but everyone seems to know her best from her hit TV series (a fact she seems constantly embarrassed by)—who’s got a brand new role on her docket. She’s going to play a real-life woman named Gracie Atherton (Moore), who in the ’90s went to prison for statutory rape after getting pregnant by her 13-year-old pet-shop co-worker Joe Yoo (Charles Melton of Riverdale fame). Clearly riffing on the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal, Gracie and Joe stayed together all through her time in prison, and once she got out, and they are now, two decades on, still a couple—a happy-seeing one that’s about to send them twins off to college.
They were in love, they say. He seduced her, they say. They say all of these things to Elizabeth, specifically—she’s come to their home in Savannah, Georgia to spend some time with Gracie and their family for role research. She needs to know all of the dirty details, and she needs to see all of the locations where they happened. And she needs to sit back and watch Gracie’s every move to mimic. And before long, Elizabeth’s watchfulness and prodding gets the couple and their loved ones saying things, probing things, that they have been ignoring for a very long time. Add on the fact that Joe’s about to become an empty nester in his mid-30s, and we’ve got ourselves a situation primed to unravel in the most melodramatic of fashions.
Of course, Melodrama is the fertile territory that Haynes has been mining for decades. From the chest-heaving hypochondria of Safe to the Sirkian dissection of Far From Heaven to those Barbie dolls singing “We’ve Only Just Begun,” an overblown self-awareness, the tolls and tribulations of performative living, has always elbowed its way to the front of his stories. Think of the revolving doors of personalities that every character in the Bowie-riff Velvet Goldmine butterfly through—that one’s a Citizen-Kane-esque unraveling of selfhoods, where there is no fixed point for personal identity. We are all built from lies, from stories that somebody else is telling about us. A founding member of New Queer Cinema, this has almost always been the foundational focus of Haynes’ films—queer people know intimately, through the brute force of living in this world, how important molding and remolding one’s self to fit into one’s current situation can be. And no director working today (save David Lynch, working from a rather different register) has turned the elasticity of self into so much gorgeous cinematic spectacle.
All of this is ever present in May December, but the joke of it—and make no mistake that this is an incredibly funny movie right off the bat—is how banal all of the melodrama is. If you’re uncertain at first about how you’re supposed to be taking this film—tonally, I mean, given the dark subject matter—I promise you once Marcelo Zarvos’ enormous, nigh suffocating score drums in over the top of a daytime -picnic hot dog drama, that any doubt you might have been having will be forcefully stomped right out of your brain. Laugh freely and abundantly, my friends.
Which isn’t to say that Haynes is making a joke out of the tragedy at the heart of this story. The film takes Joe’s story of increasing self-awareness (and the story of their kids, to a less-focal extent) very seriously. And Charles Melton gives a rich and unexpectedly affecting performance in his role, charting a course from daze and confusion to something approaching understanding, adulthood. It’s practically a delayed and deferred coming-of-age story from his end, where Elizabeth’s outward-in forcing of a fourth wall onto his and Gracie’s “story” makes Joe finally able to see it for the fucked-up horror-show it was . And is. And yet it’s all mixed-up with goodness, too.
But the disconnect between the true story, which is pathetic and sad, and the story that our tabloid culture (both the 1990s culture that Joe and Gracie have attempted to move on from as well as the modern-day version that Elizabeth, with her righteous claims that this time they will tell the story with “sensitivity”) wants to impose upon it—that’s where Haynes finds his satire. Gracie, after all, has to work overtime to shape her story of this “grand romance” to her liking, just as much as Elizabeth is trying to create a proper juicy role for herself.
And so these women’s war of wills to decide what “the truth” of it is, that is where Haynes (along with the delicious script from first-time feature screenwriter Samy Burch) reveals his cock. Which story gets told, which one is real—is there actually any real story at all? Well, that depends on who you ask! And so the film’s hysterically aggressive score, which projects torrid telenovela onto toothbrushing, is on them and it’s on us—it’s our communal desire for Lifetime tawdriness turned into actual sound and fury.
Moore and Portman are both at the top of their game here, delivering flourishes of Almodovarian camp alongside terrifying chasms of emptiness. These two and their tabloid Persona deserve one another. And while Elizabeth’s exploitations obviously pale in comparison to those of Gracie, neither of these women are commendable creatures. Elizabeth is perfectly willing to blow up real lives for the sake of her shitty movie, and she will do anything to get where and what she wants and needs. Her line to Joe after a particularly callous and exploitative act on her part, about this is just how grown-ups act, is particularly chilling given the context, which she is fully aware of, of what this man’s been through.
For her part Gracie, wielding the most weaponized lisp in cinematic history, play-acts right back—in a race to win the sash for Most Sociopathic, never count out the one holding the gun. Moore’s long proven she can project vast wells of neediness and manipulation masquerading as coquettishness (shout-out to Boogie Nights and Amber Waves’ whole “mother” routine) and that needle-threading, so precise and fine, is one of the reasons we came to love her. But most especially when Haynes gets his hands on her. Moore’s start in the soap operas here bubbles and froths back up to a boil—those poor innocent little bunny rabbits never stood a chance in her sights.
Unreliable narrators narrating to unreliable narrators, all of them with conflicting intentions we can half-glance from underneath comically large Hollywood sunglasses—tell me that’s not entertainment, folks! May December is a wily marvel of true-crime contradictions—her word, his word, her word, on and on forever; all half-priced gruel shaped and repackaged to another decade’s particular tastes and considerations. All until nobody can remember why we even started unhinging our jaws and eating this shit in the first place.
‘May December’ screened at the 2023 New York Film Festival. It’s scheduled for release in the United States on November 17th, 2023.