In his latest film, May December, Todd Haynes delivers a romantic drama with the feel of a psychological thriller.
As I watched May December, I constantly had a feeling of impending tragedy and doom, carefully crafted by the rhythm of the film through its close-ups and its use of music. But, while I was expecting tragedy to strike towards the end of the film, it eventually became clear that the worst had already happened. The real tragedy occurs long before the film takes place. To be precise, twenty years before.
May December starts when the well-respected and famous actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arrives at the Atherton-Yoo home to conduct research for her upcoming independent film. In fact, she is going to portray Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) in a movie that will explore her past and the beginning of her relationship with her husband, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). As the film goes on, we find out that their story started twenty years before, when a 30-something married Grace seduced 13-year-old Joe. Despite the sex scandal, their relationship survived and the couple is now married with three children. But there is more to the seemingly loving marriage they share than what meets the eye, as the film poignantly conveys.
The main conflict of the film is in the tension between Gracie and her soon-to-be on-screen counterpart Elizabeth. The two remain seemingly polite with each other, but it is immediately clear that something is off in their dynamic. Perhaps it is the way Elizabeth pries into Grace’s past or perhaps it is Grace’s need to control how she is perceived; whatever the reason, the conflict between the two only intensifies towards the end of the film, leaving the audience wanting to see more of it properly unfold. After all, the two women are the pillar on which May December stands: why not allow their hostility, in all its complexity and awkwardness, to truly shine?
The clash between the two, however, still comes through in the film and truly holds the film together. This is true visually as well. The most interesting shots of the movie are those that pair Elizabeth and Gracie next to each other. As the former growingly adopts and mirrors the latter’s mannerisms and physicality, you almost think you are seeing double, as the audience is invited to sit with the discomfort created by some of the shots. But May December manages to pick up its pace and deliver a stunning final act that may very well be worth the entire film.
The antagonistic chemistry Natalie Portman and Julian Moore share is undoubtedly the highlight of May December. Their stellar acting helps humanize their respective characters, thus making the peeling of their layers even more interesting and enjoyable to watch. An honourable mention has to be given to Charles Melton, who really manages to hold his own against these two powerhouses: is it possible that his teen drama Riverdale days are over? Given his strong performance in May December, it is safe to assume so. Another backbone of the film is the score, composed by Marcelo Zavos, which renders everyday-life scenes dramatic and full of suspense, while maintaining enough irony throughout the movie.
All in all, May December proves to be a compelling film, one that invites the audience to look beneath the surface and sit with the uncomfortable truth we may find there. Moreover, Todd Haynes’ latest feature ends up posing interesting questions on the portrayal of the self, as viewers may struggle to separate what is real as opposed to what the characters want to be perceived as real by others. After all, that may be its biggest strength. Despite its plot, May December does not ascribe any moral judgment to its characters. Instead, they are all portrayed as flawed humans, as pawns of a story that neither the audience nor Elizabeth will ever fully know the extent of.
May December premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2023 and will be released globally in theaters on November 17. Read our list of 20 films to watch at the Festival de Cannes!