“I don’t think we have enough hot dogs,” declares Gracie (Julianne Moore) while prepping for a BBQ in May December. If that statement sounds like perfectly normal motherly concern, Todd Haynes camps it up the wazoo by preceding it with a zany zoom and then accentuating it with a furiously dramatic assault of piano notes. The music punctuates the hot dog dilemma with life-or-death gravity, transforming a mundane domestic moment into seismic life-altering material worthy of Hollywood melodrama. The music cue proves doubly portentous when May December cuts to Gracie’s young husband Joe (Charles Melton) manning the grill. The BBQ holds enough wieners for a hot dog eating contest. One doesn’t even need ketchup when there’s so much to relish here. May December is exquisitely overwrought camp of the highest order.
Haynes, working with a whipsmart screenplay from Samy Burch, clearly has a ball with contrasts, misdirection, and performance in May December. The film deliciously toys with appearances, performance, and the gap between the way things seem and the way they really are. Grace understands the interplay between images and reality. She manipulates it to masterful effect as the scenes that follow delectably illustrate.
Enter the Actress
The art of performance is on Gracie’s mind, too, since a Hollywood actress, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), joins the party to shadow her. Elizabeth is playing Gracie in an upcoming movie about the scandalous story of how Gracie and Joe met. It’s a ripped-from-the-tabloids tale of forbidden love, as thirtysomething suburban mom Gracie was caught with 16-year-old Joe in the stock room of the pet shop where they both worked one fateful summer. The story is salacious stuff: a baby born behind bars while the affair ripped two other families apart. For all the drama, though, Elizabeth observes a loving family. Gracie and Joe are still together. Their two youngest babies are heading off to college. The neighbours respect them. Yet a cloud of notoriety hangs over them, and people whisper in their presence, but everything looks normal aside from the age difference between husband and wife.
Elizabeth’s observations of Gracie and Joe begin with typical stuff. She takes in Gracie’s mannerism and notes her speech patterns. Gracie’s modest lisp lends her a juvenile quality that really lets an actress get inside her head. There’s so much subtext to create while re-imaging a woman who seduced a teenager, but sounds like a child herself.
One visit, however, becomes several. Elizabeth comes to dinner where Gracie serves quails that she shot herself. Her eldest son is so uncomfortable with the situation—the movie, not the quails—that he can’t eat dinner. Gracie, meanwhile, drinks it up like a big glass of milk. She’s firmly in control of the story. After all, the whole point of rehashing this painful chapter of her life is to share her side of the story.
Hits All the Right Notes
The question of who’s the better actress thrillingly consumes May December as it becomes clear that Gracie isn’t as simple as she appears to be. But Elizabeth searches for motivation and fishes for details about the consequences of the affair. At 36, she and Joe are the same age and she can barely fathom seducing a teenager half a lifetime ago. What she’s missing, though, are the obvious signs of pain and sadness that hide behind all the upside-down pineapple cakes in the vast house that Gracie and Joe can somehow afford. Baggage, regrets, lost time, and things unsaid spoil this marriage. It all just looks perfect, and Gracie doesn’t let herself crack whilst Elizabeth overanalyses her every move. Gracie shows Elizabeth how she does her make-up, how she bakes a cake, and how she arranges flowers, but she doesn’t reveal herself until their final encounter.
Haynes cues audiences to the farce of it all as the music clangs away while Gracie opens the fridge or Elizabeth studies her domestic habits. May December frequently evokes clashes between the way things should be and the way they are with the ever-alarming score. Cinephiles with a fondness for tales of forbidden romance will decode the melodrama before the credits roll, though. The clanking notes hail from Michel Legrand’s score for The Go-Between, that 1970 romp with Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Supplanting a pre-existing a score upon new material, Haynes doubles down on the immaculate style of May December. It’s a novel conceit—using a pre-existing score atop a new film—but the music brings May December together with just the right note of camp to accentuate the deadpan performances. Everyone plays it straight in May December, but the slightly off-kilter music turns the performances on their heads.
Brilliantly Layered Performances
Actressexuals best brace themselves as Portman and Moore deliver juicy layers of performance. Portman excels as Elizabeth crosses all plausible boundaries—emotional, personal, and physical. For Elizabeth, appearances exist on the surface. When time comes to play Gracie in the sleazy movie, she’s all mechanics. She can master the expression of this strange the-heart-wants-what-the-heart-wants romance, but can’t capture the essence of it. It’s a bold move by Portman to flesh out her strengths as an actor by revealing her character’s limitations. Although a monologue in which she interprets Gracie’s story offers a brilliant coup for Portman, as well as an unsettling glimpse into the power that performers hold when manipulating another’s story.
Equally impressive is newcomer Charles Melton, best known for his work on Netflix’s Riverdale. His complicated presence speaks volumes about Gracie’s beguiling hold. He loves her and the family they built together, but, as Joe eases into becoming an empty-nester at 36, Melton conjures a young man who realized that life passed him by before he even grew up. This is a heartbreaking portrait of a man struggling with youth, innocence, maturity, and agency. He tries to be a mentor for his kids without ever really understanding the transition from youth to adulthood.
But May December ultimately proves to be Moore’s show. This stealthy and wickedly funny performance consistently surprises. One can never quite figure Gracie out: is she a predator? A victim? Lonely? Mentally ill? All of the above? Moore creates a complex character who appears the hallmark of grace and kindness, but actually proves unexpectedly manipulative, delivering cruelty with a smile. This performance leaves one on edge as Gracie shifts shape to defy the easy categorization with which Elizabeth seeks to define her. Moore is never better than when she’s working with Haynes and May December is no exception. This film and performance rank up there with their previous collaborations Safe, Wonderstruck, and especially Far From Heaven. Much like that revisionist melodrama with its autumnal colour palette, May December intoxicates with its melodramatic take on the imitation of life.
May December is now in theatres including TIFF Lightbox and streams on Netflix beginning December 1.