What on earth would make a woman in her mid-thirties have an affair with a teenager? This is the question Todd Haynes asks May December (which had its world premiere in competition in Cannes on Saturday 20 May). The new feature film is another of the US director’s searing and heated melodramas.
The plot could be straight out of a salacious TV soap opera, but the US director is behind it Carol (2015) and Far from heaven (2002) approaches his material with an intensity that evokes some of Ingmar Bergman’s most tense and focused character studies. He elicits excellent performances from his two leading actors, Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore.
Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, a movie star who travels to Savannah, Georgia to find out about her new role. In her next film, she’ll play Gracie (Julianne Moore), a woman who was at the center of a tabloid scandal two decades earlier after having an affair with a seventh grader (that is, a 13-year-old boy).
Gracie was arrested when the affair became public. She then divorced her husband and married a boy, Joe (Charles Melton), who is over 20 years her junior. They’ve started a family, have college-age children of their own, and are now “a beloved part of the community.” However, Elizabeth’s arrival brings back some very uncomfortable memories and reveals lingering resentments towards her.
Portman’s character exudes evil intentions. She pretends to feel sorry for Gracie when all she really wants is to exploit her. “It’s not a story. It’s my damn life,” Gracie exclaims at one point as Elizabeth predatorily sneaks her way into her world. The Hollywood star interviews everyone she can, from Gracie’s ex-husband to the son from her first marriage. (“It ruined my life, of course,” the son tells her of his mother’s illicit affair.) Elizabeth begins to dress like Gracie. She mimics everything about her, from her makeup to the way she speaks.
Elizabeth is a chameleon-like character whose true feelings remain hidden. In a revealing scene, she shows up at the school that Gracie’s children attend and talks to the drama class. A student asks her about sex scenes in front of the camera. She admits her ambivalence towards such scenes. Sometimes she acts like she enjoys it, but on other occasions the opposite is true: she acts like she doesn’t enjoy it, when in fact she does.
Moore’s Gracie combines steel strength and vulnerability. She spends her days baking cakes to sell to neighbors and exudes happiness, but it doesn’t take much to reveal her insecurities and selfishness.
Much of the film’s fun lies in the clash of styles. It’s trashy and voyeuristic at certain moments. With others, such as when Elizabeth and Gracie are alone together, it approaches Bergman’s Persona, with its famous shot in which the faces of the actress played by Liv Ullmann and her nurse Bibi Andersson seem to merge. The shrill music by Marcelo Zarvos reinforces the harrowing effect of the film.
As the two women shadow each other, Haynes also dedicates to Joe, the young husband who married a woman 20 years his senior. Joe is obsessed with caterpillars and butterflies. He is a friendly character but emotionally atrophied. It’s like by marrying Gracie at such a young age he skipped an entire part of his life and stumbled prematurely into middle age.
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It is never entirely clear who is exploiting whom. Gracie presumably invited Elizabeth to her family home because she gets paid to do so. There would be no other reason to process such painful memories. She’s ashamed of her affair with a teenager, but tells herself he was the one who initiated it. A method actress, Elizabeth is so tirelessly devoted to exploring her new role that she seems to have lost any compassion or ethical responsibility.
May December is a film without frills and special effects. It’s a tightly focused character study, fueled by the superb performances of Portman and Moore, and it explores areas more conventional drama can’t.
Director: Todd Haynes; Cast: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore. UK release date to be confirmed.