May December is a fascinating movie about the entertainment we consume and the ethics involved in that. The movie begins with a regular domestic scene, with Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her husband Joe (Charles Melton) preparing for a cookout. Then we get a dramatic telenovela score surging through the scene, before ending anti-climatically on Moore’s Gracie nonchalant comment of: “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” Within these opening moments, director Todd Haynes cleverly establishes what May December is about. To Gracie and Joe, this is their real life, but to everyone around them and visiting actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), their story is tabloid fodder that they can’t stop talking about.
Elizabeth is preparing for a role in an indie movie, where she’s playing a character based on Gracie. So she’s here to get a sense of the woman she’s playing, in order to bring an air of authenticity to the role. About 23 years ago, Gracie committed statutory rape when she got involved with a 13 year old Joe. She labels it a love story, and desires to project this image of the two of them as a loving couple that overcame the odds of their beginning, but is this the reality?
Moore is fantastic as Gracie – on the surface all Southern charm and sweetness, but underneath that lies a viperish sting of passive aggression. She seeks to keep her children, Charles (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu), in her power by doling out seeming innocuous comments that are actually steeped in poison. She gives Charles milk because she’s worried about his calcium deficiency and masculinity, and her compliments to Mary are actually nasty criticisms.
If this is how she treats her children, her husband Joe gets it even worse. She orders him around all the time, to do the chores, to handle the errands as well as her emotional baggage. In a movie with powerhouse actresses like Moore and Portman, Melton more than holds his own. His portrayal of Joe is heartbreaking – his meek physicality renders him almost invisible in his own house, as if he’s afraid to take up too much space.
In a film filled with tremendous performances, it is Portman who absolutely steals the show. When we first meet Elizabeth, we wonder what kind of person she is, especially since she’s accepted such an acting role. But as the film continues, we realise she’s here because she’s eager to drink in the salacious material she will be soon starring in. It’s fascinating to see Portman slowly transform into Moore’s Gracie over the course of the film, and it feels like Bergman’s Persona at some points. A particular standout is Portman’s delivery of a monologue as Gracie, which might make your hair stand given how uncanny the portrayal is. Portman is definitely on her way to another Oscar nomination.
At first we think that Elizabeth’s actions are the result of her delving too deep into character, but it becomes clear that she and Gracie are built from the same cloth. She has no issues crossing boundaries in the name of her ‘art’, much like how Gracie did the same in the name of ‘love’. They’re both nasty people, and we’re the people watching.
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Todd Haynes' May December is about the ugliness that permeates human nature, and our leanings towards the salacious, practically ignoring the very real people at the centre of it all.
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