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17 November 2023

May December is a moral provocation disguised as soap opera

Todd Haynes’s sophisticated melodrama pits Julianne Moore against Natalie Portman in a bitingly funny duel.

By Pippa Bailey

In one scene in Todd Haynes’s May December, a high-school student asks the actress Elizabeth Berry (played by Natalie Portman): “Why would you want to play someone who you think is a bad person?” Elizabeth replies: “It’s the moral grey areas that are interesting.” May December agrees.

Elizabeth is in Savannah, Georgia, to visit the Atherton-Yoo family, who live a comfortable suburban existence of cook-outs and graduations – except for the neatly wrapped parcels of faeces delivered to their front door. Mom and dad Gracie and Joe were at the centre of a tabloid sex scandal (the story is loosely based on that of the real-life Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau): she, 36 when they met, was a married mother; he a 13-year-old with a weekend job at the pet shop where she worked. When their relationship was discovered, she went to prison for rape, had three of his children and the pair went on to marry. Now Gracie, Joe – in their fifties and thirties respectively – and two of their children are playing host to Elizabeth, who is to play Gracie in a sensitive, indie biopic. Over the course of the film, Elizabeth’s presence upends the delicately balanced scales of the family’s existence.

The long-time Haynes collaborator Julianne Moore stars as Gracie, a grown woman stuck in a strange state of perma-childhood in her pastel floral dresses and her distinctive lisp (a characteristic borrowed from Letourneau), her tongue always lolling just behind her front teeth. Joe (Charles Melton), meanwhile, is childish in a different way, quiet and sullen, playing out as a father of teenagers the normal teenage life he never had. His real passion is raising monarch butterflies, which he eventually sets free; the symbolism is not hard to read.

Joe funds the family’s lifestyle with his work as an X-ray tech (Gracie has a business of sorts baking cakes for neighbours who order from her out of pity), yet it is she who manages the household with steely control. If you approached the film with no idea of the plot, you would mistake him for her wayward son when, in one early scene, she instructs him to lay the table. In public she is brittle but composed. In private, Moore’s trademark neurotic sob-fests overwhelm: “You seduced me!” she tells Joe in a snotty strop of delusion and denial when he confronts her about the maybe-not-entirely-consensual beginnings of their relationship. Where Moore’s performance is deliciously histrionic, Melton’s is small and tight, the twitch of a jaw muscle alone suggesting all is not as well as it seems.

But Elizabeth has neuroses of her own. She is a Juilliard-educated actress best known for her role in a TV show called Norah’s Arc – she plays a vet. Her academic parents disapproved of her choice of career: she’s too intelligent for it, she tells Gracie, in a bitingly funny humble-brag. (This is just one of many darkly comic lines in an astonishingly good debut feature script from Samy Burch: at one point Elizabeth rejects the child actors proposed to play Joe opposite her in the movie because “they’re cute but not sexy enough”.) She is proud, poised, mask-like – and just as manipulative as Gracie. Portman and Moore, two titans of screen, are locked in an unacknowledged duel; they circle around each other like proud lionesses, occasionally taking a claws-out swipe.

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May December has the melodrama of Haynes’s Carol and Far From Heaven but dialled up a notch. Marcelo Zavros’s plonky piano score (an adaptation of Michel Legrand’s music for The Go-Between – again, the symbolism is clear), together with the cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s exaggerated zooms, give the film the feel of a sizzling, spiky soap opera. But there’s a core of sadness, even malice, too. May December is a film that leads you to feel one thing, only to immediately make you question whether you are complicit – a bad person, even – for feeling it.

May December is in cinemas on 17 November

[See also: How to Have Sex understands teen girl desire]

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