From its very first shot Todd Haynes’ May December announces itself as a wildly intoxicating, intentionally strident provocation. Close-up images of Monarch butterflies and their surrounding manicured flower gardens are scored by the theme from Joseph Losey’s 1971 film The Go-Between. The archly dramatic music lends a discomfiting feeling to the scenes of domesticity (a cookout for friends and family in Savannah, Georgia) that soon follow. Such a jarring juxtaposition, best encapsulated by said music leading into a character complaining about not having enough hot dogs, sets up a film that wants to suture the lurid and the mundane, creating in the process a masterful meditation on performance and predation.
Georgie and Joe (Julianne Moore and Charles Melton) have lived in Savannah their entire lives. On this particular day, they are hosting a friendly get-together where their two youngest kids (twins soon to be high school graduates), as well as their friends and neighbors can all enjoy some of those aforementioned hot dogs, not to mention one of Gracie’s famed cakes. Such vision of domestic contentment (it’s not quite bliss as there’s a rehearsed intimacy between them) belies a sordid history everyone’s all too happy to avoid; except for the fact that famed actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) has arrived to get to know Gracie better before playing her in a movie. A movie that will yet again unearth the tabloid headlines that first made their romance national news.
For, as we slowly learn from bits and pieces of conversation and many a clipped news headline pored over by Elizabeth in her hotel room, Gracie first met Joe when they worked together at the same pet store in the early 1990s. She was married with kids. Her affair with a seventh grader became gossip news fodder once she was arrested, all while she professed to have fallen in love with the young man, whom she’d later marry and start a family with after serving time. This is all backstory and backdrop for May December, which relishes instead in following urbane and sophisticated Elizabeth as she yearns to connect with sunny and naive Gracie so as to gather enough “truth” to bolster her performance. That means shadowing Gracie at home (as she bickers with her teenage son and needles at her teenage daughter; as she bakes cakes and makes flower arrangements), and probing her with questions about her past (which Gracie handily deflects, telling the actress she rarely spends time fussing about what was or what could’ve been).
The cool detachment Elizabeth must wrestle within herself as she gets to know Gracie drives her conversations with many around town, all of whom feed her and us wildly varying versions of what happened and how it was apprehended by the woman at its core. Her ex husband, her lawyer—even her son (the same age as Joe!)—seem to feed Elizabeth with enough clues as to how best to understand Gracie; a wounded young wife, a knowing older lover, a fretful mother. The actress’ inquiry, which Samy Burch’s screenplay openly presents as a selfish intellectual exercise masquerading as an empathetic plea for understanding, slowly begins to reveal cracks in Gracie and Joe’s life, in their story. Or so Elizabeth tells herself. So she needs to tell herself; for she can only grapple with Gracie as a character in dire need of an explanation, less so as a woman who yearns to simply be and bake and cook and go out to dinner with her family.
It’s perhaps why Elizabeth so focuses on Gracie’s wispy mannerisms, her muted girlish hair and makeup, and her distinctive sibilant lisp (which only an actress like Moore could elevate above caricature). Making herself as malleable as can be, losing her smoky eyes, severe hair style and movie star jeans/blazer combo in favor of Gracie’s softened features and shirt dresses gives Elizabeth an in, even as she struggles with getting at the root of who Gracie was, is, could be. Conflicting accounts and ideas and memories are harder and harder to parse out into a tidy character study.
And as the two women dance around one another, with equal parts suspicion and seduction, Joe is driven toward the kind of self-examination that risks upending everything he’s known and thought about himself. Here the music cues from The Go-Between help place us squarely in yet another story about stolen innocence and torrid affairs: in Melton’s commanding performance, Joe soon reveals himself to us as both too old and too young for his age. He’s a father who can’t quite connect with the youthful abandon of his son and a husband who’s forced to baby a wife prone to fits of hysterical tears in bed. No surprise Elizabeth would, in a canny bit of method acting, insinuate herself into his world with increasingly dangerous results.
With May December Haynes has crafted an implausible blend of raw authenticity and stylized histrionics that’s fueled by a curious intellectual inquiry: what role do we play in our own story? With his choice of actresses, Haynes offers up differing approaches to performance that further muddle the brilliant ambiguity that pulses throughout Burch’s screenplay. Moore, here reuniting with her Safe and Far From Heaven director, has long thrived with motherly roles that she arrives at with grounded flair. A bold actress who tackles her performances with unguarded fearlessness, she here turns Gracie into a warm cipher of a woman who wears her ingenuity with such nakedness you don’t notice how much of it is not just an armor but a sly weapon. Hers is a portrayal that refuses the pull toward coherence, toward story. Moore is Gracie, in that facile pull-quote conflation us critics are prone to so using.
On the other end of the spectrum is Portman, who’s long excelled in bringing steely if brittle insecure women to the screen. With a performance that should sit right alongside her Oscar-nominated ones (Closer, Black Swan and Jackie), Portman deploys yet another signature portrayal of a woman seducing and being seduced by the thrill of who they may yet be. As an actress whose portrayals often demand to be understood, as if existing within quotation marks, she’s a perfect match for Elizabeth. Lost in a world where all she sees are performers, Portman’s Elizabeth keeps finding Gracie much too slippery a person to anchor with whispered intonations and pink-hued blush. Fitting that, in a late monologue played in front of a mirror (the film’s central image and metaphor) where Elizabeth seems to finally capture who Gracie is, we get to witness Portman-doing-Elizabeth-doing-Moore-doing-Gracie in what is arguably one of the most searing onscreen moments in her storied career. It’s an astounding scene that leaves us, just as it does Elizabeth, with frightful fits coursing through our bodies.
This is all to say: May December, a prickly story about performance and persuasion, about prejudgments and predation, is a triumph. Its final moments alone will be rattling in the viewer’s head for days, if not years, to come. And its trio of performances, all perfectly calibrated to Haynes’ tricky tonal tightrope, are a wonder to behold and the better, perhaps, to be savored upon repeat viewings.
May December opens November 17 in select theaters, and arrives December 1 on Netflix