'May December' Review
May 25, 2023
May December premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Netflix will release it in theaters and on its streaming service later this year.
Director Todd Haynes’ approach to the material within May December becomes clear immediately. The opening credits arrive accompanied by Michel Legrand's hyper-stylized theme from The Go-Between, harkening back to the pulpy works of Brian De Palma and Old Hollywood melodrama. It’s an immediate disarmament, signaling a lighter attitude toward this true-ish tabloid story of an affair between a thirty-something housewife and her thirteen-year-old co-worker.
How could someone find the humor in this situation, you ask? A brief tour of Haynes’ filmography illustrates a filmmaker who has always been fascinated with infiltrating mainstream material with independent ideas. Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There turned the musician biopic on its head, Far from Heaven used Douglas Sirk pastiche to approach 1950s racism, and Carol tells the age-old tale of forbidden love, this time with a queer angle. Even Haynes’ most mainstream film, the legal thriller Dark Waters, subtlely undermines genre clichés with impeccable mise-en-scene. May December is his most playful exercise in tone and expectations, delivering something that is both mature and overtly theatrical.
The illegal affair is only the preface to the main story. Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) Atherton-Yoo are still together twenty years after their scandalous romance shocked the world. They live in a Georgia suburban home paid for by their tabloid cover photos. Their youngest children are about to graduate high school, making Joe an empty-nest parent before he’s even the age Gracie was when they met. Despite their attempts to lead a quiet life, the couple is always reminded of how they’re perceived in the public eye, whether it be the infrequent anonymous hatemail or the arrival of actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who’s playing Gracie in a new Lifetime original movie about the romance and is staying with the family to do research.
Gracie hopes that the film and Elizabeth’s performance will help reshape the public’s perception of how she and Joe came to be. Elizabeth totally agrees and presents herself as an ally to the couple, at least on the surface. There’s something off about how Elizabeth injects herself into the couple’s lives. She’s inferred to be on a downward trajectory in her career, so maybe the juicy material will put her back in the headlines? Haynes and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt - stepping in for Ed Lachmann, as he was off shooting Pablo Larraín’s El Conde in Chile - always have Elizabeth standing a bit off-center, usually obscured by an object or observed through a mirror.
Reflections in both its literal and figurative form are the key to Samy Burch’s screenplay (touched up by Haynes). Gracie, Joe, and Elizabeth all have ideas about what they want out of this, but none of them truly know if they’re willing to mine deep inside of them to get it. There’s an artifice to every interaction, with the truth lurking around the corner. Some of these conversations, filled with jagged edges and heightened stylizations, lean a little too close to slapstick, undermining a bit of the emotional resonance. But those interspersed moments of whimsy are also the best parts as they turn up the heat on the oftentimes room-temperature plot developments.
The actors are all game for their roles. Moore and Portman have delicious chemistry in their scenes together, with it never being totally established who is observing and manipulating the other. It’s catty as hell, with Haynes never allowing it to be misogynistic. Charles Melton joins Austin Butler as a CW television veteran who has quickly climbed the Hollywood ladder. It's obvious he’s never fully processed his robbed childhood, leaving him still a kid in an adult body.
There’s enough camp within May December that smores might as well be served alongside it. It’s morally ambiguous in its message, but never in its approach. At the very least, the high-drama of it all will allow a new generation of Netflix watchers to be introduced to Haynes’ filmography.