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Todd Haynes enchants everyone with “May December”

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman star in Todd Haynes' "May December," a captivating exploration of love, truth, and the price of fame.
May December (2023) Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry with Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton

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In May December, competing at the latest Cannes Film Festival, Todd Haynes reaffirms himself as a filmmaker of great depth, capable of enchanting and intriguing the audience with this new, unconventional portrait of a woman, giving us perhaps his most elusive female character. By setting her against another, antithetical female character, a challenge arises between two great actresses: Julianne Moore, long a muse of Haynes’s cinema, and Natalie Portman, who also serves as co-producer and collaborates with the director for the first time.

The theme explores the intricacies of the human psyche even before those of love, from the threshold of what we call morality. Haynes adds a new and fundamental piece to his investigation of contemporary inner malaise, which always coincides with the deconstruction of the modern human’s identity, inseparable from a reflection on cinema, intended as a mirror with multiple reflections, or fragments, of a no less deconstructed reality.

“My brother, Scott, is a Rear Admiral in the Navy, and he says that ‘order is its own reward’ ” says Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore). Yet, “it’s the complexity, it’s the moral grey areas that are interesting,” observes Elizabeth Berry (Nathalie Portman) instead. Between the first statement, made at the beginning, and the second, arriving almost mid-movie, the audience already finds the two oppositions that run through the work, embodied by the two protagonists.

Inspired by a true story, the film tells the tale of Gracie Atherton-Yoo. At thirty-six, she fell in love with a thirteen-year-old of Korean descent, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). She met him at the pet store where the boy worked. Together, they had twins, Mary and Charlie, who are about to graduate and leave home. After being arrested and jailed for that relationship, Gracie managed to return to a seemingly normal life, building a network of friendships and staying in Savannah, Georgia. Another woman is present from the opening sequences: Elizabeth Berry, an actress who wants to embody Gracie in a movie based on her story.

In reality, her presence amounts to a genuine investigation – she questions neighbors, the son from the first marriage, the ex-husband, Gracie’s lawyer – and gradually, the initial apparent respect gives way, in her view of the affair, to a kind of malicious intent, if not contempt, as particularly revealed in her phone conversations with her partner or the production.

Her observation is not empathetic, or even neutral: Gracie is judged, and harshly. A good dose of cynicism and unscrupulousness slowly emerge in Elizabeth’s behavior, who does everything to seem friendly and gain trust.

The significant age difference between Gracie and Joe (the title refers precisely to a common expression* highlighting it) is continuously pointed out by Elizabeth with her questions, making Joe uncomfortable and pushing him to question himself. Elizabeth slowly destabilizes the family’s precarious balances. “This isn’t a story. It’s my fucking life!” Joe will scream in frustration at Elizabeth, who plays with him almost like a cat with a mouse.

At dinner, the son almost immediately leaves the table. The twins seem like the younger brothers of a father in need of consolation. Like in the scene where Joe looks at the sky and the treetops from lying down, thus from below but at the same time from above, because we soon learn he is lying on the roof: a paradigmatic scene that tells us everything here is upside down, inverted, mirrored.

Only Gracie always seems clear and determined. Her candor and naivety clash with the ambitions of an actress who sees the chance to rise from TV series – “I kinda wish no one ever watched it,” she says – and commercials.

There is a moment of great cinematic strength. Elizabeth attends a meeting organized at school with students on the challenges of acting. The first question is about sex scenes. The answer leaves everyone speechless, and the teacher’s face is dismayed: “you’re wearing practically nothing and you’re rubbing up against each other… and sweating… and it’s for hours, and you start losing the line of, like, am I pretending that I’m experiencing pleasure, or am I… Am I pretending that I’m not experiencing pleasure? And the whole crew, they’re almost always all men. You feel them watching. And you feel them, like… holding their breath.” She adds almost whispering: “And they try and hide it when they swallow. You give in to the rhythm, you know, every time.” Real and fake cancel each other out, becoming interchangeable. This conversation on film theory foreshadows its concrete development.

Haynes’s metacinema is conceived as a voyeuristic interrogation of reality, with its premise in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rear Window but also, oppositely, in the interrogation of cinema as an ethical gaze, as in Roberto Rossellini‘s work. It then extends with declared references to Bergman (to Persona, for example), Douglas Sirk’s disturbed films, up to Orson Welles‘s Citizen Kane: the elusive Rosebud here is Gracie, and instead of a journalist asking questions, there’s an actress. And it finally finds its expression in the choice of Michel Legrand’s music – reworked by Marcelo Zarvos – for Joseph Losey‘s The Go-Between.

It’s also a clash between classic and new cinema, between the vision and uniqueness of cinema and TV seriality, like in the foundation scene, where the two women face each other: two ages of life and cinema mirrored. The fusion of two ages of cinema with postmodern human anthropology, female in this case. One with almost ethereal, ghost-like white skin, dressed in white, the other tanned, toned. One carries something phantom-like, the other perhaps obvious. Because the second carries a mystery very difficult to clarify. Two antinomies, even in the flesh.

The ending shuffles the cards again. The mystery Gracie is as elusive as reality: “I think I’ve lost the notion of where the boundary is. And then who’s to set these boundaries?” the woman says in bidding farewell to Elisabeth. And it is emphasized by the fact that it’s clear social conventions destabilize: the poison comes from outside, first and foremost from Elizabeth, who will be put into crisis. In contrast to Haynes’s cinema.

Francesco Boille

Internazionale, March 21, 2024

NOTE

* The expression “May-December” refers to a romantic relationship where there’s a significant age gap between the partners. “May” symbolizes youth, likened to the springtime of one’s life, while “December” represents a much older age, akin to the winter of one’s life. This metaphor highlights the contrast in life stages between the two individuals involved.

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