Todd Haynes’ May December (2023) continues the director’s fascination with performance and self-deception. Set in Savannah, Georgia, the location lending the film a tinge of deep-fried sleaze, featuring a trio of exceptional performances, the Far from Heaven and Carol filmmaker has presented to the Croisette a restrained yet uncomfortably dark portrait of power and desire.
Gracie (Julianne Moore) is famous for all the wrong reasons. As a 36-year-old married woman, she seduced a 13-year-old boy. She went to prison, while pregnant with their first child, and when she got out, they married and settled down the best they could, producing two more children. 24 years have passed, the kids are grown-up, and Hollywood is set to make a movie about the scandal. Into Gracie’s life walks Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), an actress set to play the sex criminal on screen. Open but simultaneously guarded, Gracie allows Elizabeth access to her home, her now-adult husband Joe (Charles Melton) and hopes the movie star will ‘tell the truth’.
Soft blue tones dominate the costumes, the sets, the lighting in May December. It’s a colour scheme entirely suitable for such a sad movie, one where people go on and on about telling the truth, all the while doing their best to avoid it.
Riverdale star Melton (as Joe) steals the film from Moore – whose role as a sex offender turned unhappy soccer mom is the most daring – and Portman as a nosey Hollywood star parachuting into the house for a few days. Joe sits quietly in scenes not saying much, or he tends to his butterflies, a hobby revealing much about his longing for change, while sometimes Gracie uncomfortably mothers him. When he’s sat with his kids, because of the short age gap, he looks like their older brother, not their father. Joe gives the film its troubled heart but equally its palpably haunting weirdness. Used to being dominated by Gracie, used to pleasing her, always at her beck and call, Joe is on the cusp of middle age and finally ready to deal with his relationship with the much older woman he tells himself he loves.
Is Gracie a manipulative freak or a victim herself? Can she be both? Elizabeth too finds herself asking myriad questions for which there is no readily apparent answer. Initially she gives the family and Gracie the typical phoney baloney lines about being respectful, how it’s her mission as an artist to get to the heart of the matter, but her increased fascination with their miserable lives threatens to become prurient, but also she is genuinely touched by Joe’s sadness and his lack of life experience. The dynamic between Gracie and Joe is not good. But both decided to bury their heads in the sand for decades.
In asking ‘can movies ever actually get anywhere close to the truth of life?’ Haynes attaches to his new film probing questions on lies, what counts as truth, as well as art and storytelling meeting inherent barriers and challenges when up against real-life issues. For a director known for his using camp and 1950s suburban Sirkian melodrama, a restraint was needed here because of the topic of abuse and consent and trauma. He could not have Gracie being trashy figure of fun or outwardly demented like a 1950s housewife hopped up on pills. Instead, she deploys her naïve and own arrested development personality as a coping mechanism, as a sneaky way to deflect her inner darkness, her crime, as a way to make herself unthreatening to others.
Confronting, philosophical, grim, sometimes funny – Moore’s line about hotdogs is destined for cult appreciation – May December does utilise aspects of camp, 1950s melodrama, the things he is celebrated for, and there’s a deliciously OTT score adding to that quintessential postmodernist Haynesian style, but dialling it all down the result still manages to be fireworks.
Still: Festival de Cannes.