May December (2023)
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriters: Samy Burch, Alex Mechanik
Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Gabriel Chung, Elizabeth Yu
Todd Haynes’ films are hard to pin down. Ever the subversive, the renegade of the new queer cinema movement has a proven track record of destabilizing conventional wisdoms surrounding everything from sex to gender to celebrity to domesticity and the American nuclear family. Unafraid to wear his influences on his sleeve, and to subject them to satire and scrutiny, Haynes wields homage, melodrama, and allegory in his deconstruction of the social, political, and aesthetic contexts in which his characters dwell. His is a cinema of transgression that gets its teeth from a sort of reflexive formalism, for his films frequently call attention to their own artifice.
Take 2002’s Far From Heaven, for example. In many ways, the film, which centers on a 1950s suburban housewife whose secret affair threatens the sanguine domestic lifestyle she is expected to uphold, is a straight-up remake of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows, complete with all the soap and glitziness that defined Hays Code-era Hollywood. The catch is that Haynes’ film is, nonetheless, thoroughly modern in its details—by peppering in subject matter that would have been considered too taboo back in the 50s (even for Sirk, who was considered a rebel in his time), namely interracial and homosexual relationships, Haynes turns the entire genre on its head. Films such as Far From Heaven demonstrate Haynes’ unique ability to firmly situate his work relative to established cinematic traditions—and to then boldly defy them. In this way, Todd Haynes is a filmmaker who always seems to have his finger on the pulse, his films conversing with the past to illuminate the present.
The present unto which May December, Haynes’ latest, arrives feels particularly elusive—and, fittingly, so does the film. Written by Samy Burch and loosely inspired by the public scandal surrounding Mary Kay Letourneau, the screenplay orbits three central characters: Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), a suburban pariah who was once the subject of a tabloid frenzy surrounding her predatory sexual involvement with a 13-year-old boy; Joe Atherton-Yoo (Charles Melton), the boy, now in his 30s and married with children to Gracie; and Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a B-list actress who comes to study Gracie and her family in preparation to play her in a movie about the scandal.
On first glance, such a premise seems tailor-made for the Netflix-patented true-crime-content-machine; and yet May December cleverly co-opts these vapid true-crime precepts, and our twisted attendance to them. Where Far From Heaven leverages melodrama to challenge the genre’s largely sanitized depiction of domestic life in the 1950s, May December weaponizes viewers’ learned appetite for sensationalism to unravel the tabloid mythologies that form around deviant crimes and their perpetrators—and which often exploit the victims.
Portman’s Elizabeth is the doorway through which Haynes instantly implicates the viewer. Her morbid curiosity to get to the bottom of Gracie and Joe’s strange dynamic largely matches our own. However, as she ingratiates herself among the family, it quickly becomes clear that Elizabeth’s intentions are far more perverse. As Gracie’s mask begins to slip, so too does Elizabeth’s, revealing her obsessive, megalomaniacal fantasy of coveting, or perhaps recreating, Gracie’s and Joe’s lived experience. The ensuing dissonance, heightened by the melodramatic register in which the film operates, not only makes for an unnaturalness that is often quite funny (Marcelo Zarvos’s ostentatious score is a big part of this), but it also makes space for thorny ethical questions surrounding spectatorship, representation, autonomy, and consent—none of which feel overly didactic.
Instead, in true Haynes fashion, ambiguities stay ambiguous, and the viewer is left to dwell in the gray areas. Neither patronizing nor flattering these characters, Haynes complicates prevailing assumptions surrounding Gracie and Joe by lending them both a degree of agency, and in doing so undermines whatever vague suggestion is made toward a simple sociological explanation for their relationship (e.g. personality disorders, abuse begetting abuse). Actors and outcasts alike, these are characters whose identities are defined by performance, whether of normalcy, security, sincerity, or innocence. Like the many mirrors Haynes frames them in, Portman, Moore, and, perhaps most impressively, Melton reflect and belie their characters’ superficial personas.
May December comes at a strange moment in time when the popularity of true-crime content feels at odds with flattened conceptions of moral goodness and badness in popular media. What makes the film feel particularly incisive and contemporary—infinitely more so than the titles it is destined to be algorithmically paired with on the Netflix home screen—are the ways in which it converses with this moment and indeed the viewer. Haynes’ latest is, once again, hard to pin down; but it is even harder to forget.
Written by Connell Oberman
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