May December


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

May December
"The balance held between creepiness and fascination, sheer fun and lingering disturbance is held throughout."

The first shots of Todd Haynes’s May December (cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt), screenplay by Samy Burch, are of butterflies with one of them seemingly stuck, accompanied by the most perfectly ominous and playful music, which sounds a lot like Michel Legrand. Precisely because it is a variation of a Legrand score (for Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between), adapted by Marcelo Zarvos for this film.

We enter the Southern world by the river - where the trees wear veils and moms bake pies for business and children hang out on the slanted roofs - with movie star Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) during a barbecue. Many mirrors reflect the journey of an actress through the looking glass into the world of Gracie (Julianne Moore), a woman whose affair at age 37 with a seventh grader was tabloid fodder 20 years prior.

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Elizabeth arrives in Savannah, Georgia, in understated, carefully chosen minimalist outfits, including status jewellery, sunglasses, and straw tote, to do research for a movie about Gracie and her now husband of many years. Joe (Charles Melton) is also the father of twins Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung) who are about to graduate high school.

The balance held between creepiness and fascination, sheer fun and lingering disturbance is held throughout May December (the Opening Night Gala selection of the 61st New York Film Festival). As Elizabeth interviews people surrounding Gracie and watches her subject in close proximity, she more and more begins to resemble her in looks and demeanor. The performances by Moore and Portman are spectacular in their opaqueness - acting is their business too, after all, and the reflection within the reflection makes it all the more mirthful.

Gracie, who so wholeheartedly embraces a girlish femininity in pastel-colored pants and frocks, with long flowing honey hair and an overall cheery disposition in public, frequently dissolves into despair and tears in private moments. And in a third layer, something even more private emerges for us. A small speech impediment, a hint of a lisp, that comes and goes, is the film’s Rosebud. It feels as though Moore developed an entire score for that lisp and the way Gracie phrases things at any given time

Early on, a kid screams on the lawn. What hovers in the background is the specter of childhood and what can happen if it is is taken away by an adult. Elizabeth starts out as a detective. She is the same age as Joe and there is some tension between them. Arriving at the house for the first time, she picks up a package someone left at their door - yet another box of excrement, which they routinely dispose of. The women discover that they are the same height (“You look much taller on TV” comments Gracie) and the game of similarities and differences can begin.

The complex visuals pull us in. Moore doing Portman’s makeup - a moment snatched from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona - is equally intimate and chilling. Gracie uses her own sponge to apply the blush and pushes back the bangs as they speak of their respective parents. Elizabeth comes from a family of academics and her mother wrote an important book. “My mother wrote a great recipe for blueberry cobbler” counters Gracie deadpan. They face the mirror and us, because we become the mirror. The music sets in.

Haynes serves no easy judgements on a platter and finding out where you stand has rarely been so enjoyable. May December is not a case study, although the script by Samy Burch is clearly based on the real-life Mary Kay Letourneau scandal. “She’s unapologetic,” says a neighbor about Gracie, “a very beloved part of our community” and we begin to wonder who is acting the most here. When Gracie cries - say, about the smell of charcoal or a cake cancellation - the why is most clearly a lie, opening up to a bottomless pit of unspoken, unacknowledged feelings. When Joe comforts her, it is out of love and custom. Who is the parent here? Who was the adult twenty years ago? Was the mind experiment of making the child the adult in a Humbert Humbert turn of self-justification at the root of it all? The director prompts our minds to wonder and set out on journeys to the abyss where the cradle rocks.

Elizabeth’s mission leads her to interview Gracie’s ex-husband, Tom (D.W. Moffett), so much the cookie-cutter perfectly nice man of his community that it is comical. In the diner where they meet he orders her, a perfect stranger, a coffee before she even arrives, waves a friendly hello to his dental hygienist, and proceeds to talk about the shock when his wife, then 36 was arrested in a pet shop storage room, kissing a seventh grader who was then in the same grade as their own son Georgie.

Cory Michael Smith (Varian Fry in Transatlantic and Tommy Tucker in Carol) plays the adult Georgie, whom Elizabeth is about to meet later, while speaking to Gracie’s lawyer at a river restaurant where the oldest son performs with his band. He is a terrible singer, calls himself a phoenix and a ghost, and speaks about how his mother ruined his life, all the while drinking from Elizabeth’s cup and eating from the plate on the table, as though he were the Frog King from the Brothers Grimm book. He wants to be in the business of selling family secrets.

During a theatre workshop Q&A at Mary’s high school we learn about what makes Elizabeth tick, certainly more than from the phone calls with her fiancé at home. When the two women accompany Mary to a boutique to choose a graduation dress, the images in the mirrors on screen show two Gracies flanking Elizabeth.

“Oh,” Gracie coos about her daughter exposing her arms in a sleeveless summer shift. “That’s something I couldn’t do at your age” - she means to so bluntly defy “unrealistic beauty standards.” Mary can read the icy smile, the criticism of her body wrapped in a backwards compliment, and chooses a nice dress with sleeves. Her sister Honor (Piper Curda) upon a return visit from college, expands this theme by stating that her graduation present from her mother were scales. “I am naive,” as Gracie proclaims about herself, doesn’t really cut it.

What is a woman? Who are we? What are the rules? Caterpillars and butterflies, going hunting with two Irish Setters and sparing a fox. Hidden asthma, a possible childhood secret, a kid’s poem for an assignment - details keep piling on. Then there are the audition videos in search of her co-star-to-be which are deemed “not sexy enough” by Elizabeth, as though this were The Most Beautiful Boy In The World.

“People like Gracie are going to be okay” says Elizabeth. “You really don’t know her” says Joe. “Insecure people are very dangerous” says Gracie. May December ends with a snake, but “she won’t bite - she’s not that kind of snake.” Or is she?

Reviewed on: 03 Oct 2023
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May December packshot
20 years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, a married couple buckles under the pressure when an actress arrives to do research for a film about their past.
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Director: Todd Haynes

Writer: Samy Burch, Alex Mechanik

Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Cory Michael Smith, Charles Melton, Piper Curda, Drew Scheid, Kelvin Han Lee

Year: 2023

Runtime: 113 minutes

Country: US

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