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May December Review: Todd Haynes delivers a deviously smart psychodrama

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore lead a delicious, spiky film

4/5rating
May December Review: Todd Haynes delivers a deviously smart psychodrama

Last Updated: 05.46 PM, Mar 01, 2024

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Story: The film revolves around Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who travels to Savanna, Georgia for research on her next film. She is set to play Gracie (Julianne Moore), who at thirty-six was caught having sex with her son Georgie’s thirteen-year-old Korean-American friend, Joe (Charles Melton). By spending time amidst them and their family, Elizabeth hopes to get a clearer picture of their relationship that she will draw on to enhance her performance.

Review: How do you tell a story about an illicit teacher-student relationship without crashing over into the crass/manipulative or a cerebrally aloof rendition? In May December, Todd Haynes has accomplished the rare thing: a film that mischievously winks at both in a ungraspably fluid storytelling vein that juggles parody and disquietingly sober meditation on power, deception and the art of interpretation.

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May December dredges up the past for a recreation/re-staging in the present. Elizabeth is drawn to chasing the incomplete dots that’d help her create a portrait of the vilified Gracie. Haynes is not so much interested in the tabloid fodder aspect of the tale so much as he is in exploring a thorny tangle of clashing desires and unmindful overtures. The actress seeks to assemble the many aspects about the controversial relationship but the gaps in between keep growing, which she does not seem to register until the very end of this twisted tale.

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When Elizabeth grills Gracie and Joe about their relationship to their kids, Gracie gently snaps, enquiring how it is relevant. After all, the film the actress will make zeroes in on a mere two-year span, far removed from the insights she is demanding. However, Elizabeth’s conceitedness doesn’t take a beating; she asserts how her job calls for a more expansive preparation in its search for the seeds of what drives a person to do something. She makes great pomp and fuss about getting to the truth and dipping beneath the surface to attain a complexity in representing Gracie. While she initially promises Gracie her driving intention is to make her feel seen and heard, she is unhesitant and unwavering in setting up a storm and reopening old wounds in her quest for authenticity. She is ignorant of how corrosive it can be for her subjects.

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As Elizabeth attempts to keep her emotions about them masked, she lets out her severely judgemental opinions with undisguised disgust and shock to her professional and intimate associates. She is startled that Gracie seems to have no guilt or shame. When she nudges Gracie if she reflects at all on past actions, Gracie smilingly dodges saying she already has too much on her plate to do that. Obviously this only adds to the allure and intrigue that Gracie wields. There is an intoxicating thrill in this supposed pursuit of truth Elizabeth is dead set on; May December brings this alive while increasingly acknowledging with skin-tingling unease how far it can be pushed.

As the film takes its piercing look at the artifice of charade, performance, and imitation, it slowly pulls the ground from under your feet. Elizabeth plays the diligent student aiming to embody and inhabit a real-life subject, swiftly moving from the mannerisms to inserting herself into the small, isolated world Gracie has managed to construct for herself. Gracie had been publicly crucified for possibly entrapping and grooming a seventh grader. When Elizabeth enacts her intrusion, Gracie has somewhat pieced together a low-profile life with Joe, a quiet, receding presence, and her kids. As the actress inches towards what she presumes is the real, accurate picture of Gracie, needling for a glimpse of any qualm or regret, the latter’s world starts to fray. Elizabeth is not immune herself to the price of the multiple lines she crosses.

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Haynes filters out the lurid edges and the predictable scope for sensational drama. He takes a perfectly chiselled scalpel to the manipulation Elizabeth is sure must have been at play. What has the veneer of a sunny melodrama gradually morphs into something far more slippery and morally tenuous. While most of it is viewed through Elizabeth’s perspective as the hovering observer struggling to find her way in, the film makes for an excellent case of rupturing it, with brilliantly handled seismic shifts. She is coolly self-assured in her moral high ground; her certainty that the end will justify her means is half-chilling, half-deluded. Any of her projected softness and sensitivity quickly reveals as hiding claws that can damagingly prise apart the settled comfort of someone’s beliefs. She is utterly nonchalant about the ethical costs of her actions, bolstered by her faith that whatever she may have to do for extracting for what she needs couldn’t be half as egregious as Gracie’s. But she isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue either. May December attacks the rich moral shades with spectacular relish and unsettling nuance. At every step Haynes resists passing simple judgements while piling on an analytic and scabrous rigour.

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A fiendishly clever play of perspectives creeps up, stoking conflicting notions and destabilising them in the same held breath. It is a notorious tight rope the film chooses to walk but Samy Burch’s screenplay matches the subtle density of its prickly themes with a smooth elegance and tonal conviction of a veritable master. The performances of the trio are sharp and precise, alternating between discovery and denial, provoking and retreating. The mirror scene between Portman and Moore will go down as one of the greats in Haynes’ oeuvre.

Verdict: In May December, Todd Haynes orchestrates a narrative around the essential unknowability of someone, exploding exercises of meaning-making and basing assumptions. Certainties crumble in a devious table-turning climactic encounter, as one wrests power back from the other. What we think we know gets wholly recast in a new light, with Julianne Moore stealing all the fire and thunder.

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