MAY DECEMBER Blurs Lines of Cruelty and Complicity to Disturbingly Effective Ends

The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Todd Haynes’ latest peers into the performative and parasitic relationships between an actress and her controversial subjects

Still courtesy of Netflix.

In Todd Haynes’ latest film, May December, popular TV actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) descends upon Savannah, Georgia to explore the lives of Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton), a longtime married couple eagerly awaiting the graduation of their twins Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung). Elizabeth is about to play Gracie in an adaptation of her romance with Joe, and the couple are initially eager to divulge a lifetime’s worth of secrets and anecdotes to ensure their story is portrayed accurately. But layered amidst the family barbecues and polite smiles is something darker and repulsive. As much as everyone tries to ignore it, Elizabeth embodies the same uncomfortable truth behind Gracie and Joe’s relationship that she doggedly pursues for her impending performance. When their romance met the world’s spotlight, Gracie was 36–and Joe was in 7th grade.

The camp and melodrama that defined much of the director’s previous work takes a more reserved backseat in Todd Haynes’ latest outing, yet the sumptuously raw emotion of the performances remains a constant and provocative virtue. May December is a challenging, morally grey examination of how two women weaponize the truth to their own similarly insidious ends, blurring lines of victimhood and agency until it isn’t quite clear which of the two leads is the better actress. 

Samy Burch’s screenplay, developed alongside Alex Mechanik, teases out the exact nature of Gracie and Joe’s relationship beginning with Elizabeth’s arrival. At first glance, the couple’s age difference seems apparent yet not out of the ordinary–yet with disturbing details cropping up amidst picturesque scenes of their lakeside suburban life, Elizabeth’s fascination tempers our natural initial shock. Elizabeth is earnest in her determination to mine the minutiae of Gracie’s life as research for her portrayal of her subject, which warms the couple to what would in other circumstances (a true crime podcast or streaming special, for example) be equally predatory or dubious behavior. But Elizabeth has an unerring drive to get answers to questions that Gracie and Joe haven’t bothered to ask themselves–and for good reason. In tandem with the revelations behind understanding Gracie and Joe’s relationship, all three confront ugly yet necessary questions about agency and complicity that threaten to upend lives and personas that they’ve meticulously developed for themselves. 

All three actors walk an incredibly fine line for their characters that push the audience’s natural empathetic inclinations into necessarily provocative and uncomfortable places. Portman’s Elizabeth, who seems to have taken on a dual acting-producing role in the adaptation of the Gracie/Joe story, corners her subjects with innocuous lines of questioning to get her timeline straight, which forces everyone to reconsider just where their acts of rationalization led them to further acts of denial or delusion. The insidious thing about Elizabeth is that there’s no hint of malice or judgment in her actions; her pursuit of emotional truth in preparing for her role leaves her blind to the trauma that she dredges up as a result of her actions. There’s no stone Elizabeth leaves unturned, interrogating not just Gracie and Joe, but her ex-husband, her first kids (some now the same age as their half-siblings), and even the manager of the pet store where Gracie and Joe first met and were eventually caught in the act. No act of immersion is off limits for Elizabeth–and by the time she worms her way into re-creating a pantomime of Gracie where she was caught with Joe, her earnest pursuit of emotional justice for Gracie has crossed nearly as many moral boundaries as Gracie herself.

But even then, Gracie and Joe are wrapped up in decades of performance themselves, compartmentalizing their lives into an ideal relationship as a husband and wife facing an empty nest, all while downplaying or ignoring their own arrested development. In his fleeting interactions with his children and stepchildren, Melton’s Joe comes off as much as a sibling to them as a parent. Whether it’s preparing these teens for graduation or fumbling a shared joint between them, Joe shares our own increasingly uncomfortable awareness that both “parent” and “child” are experiencing these milestones for the first time. In seeing these children navigate between teenagerdom and adulthood, Haynes and Burch painfully illustrate how much Joe has been prevented from doing the same himself.

Gracie, however, tries to turn a blind eye to all of this, wrapped up in the idea that she’s succeeded in overcoming her trauma and has come out the other side as the ideal mother and wife. In a delicious parallel to her performance in Haynes’ earlier Safe, Gracie’s attempts to remain blissfully unaware of her inner pain only create the perfect environment for it to fester beyond control. In the film’s most gripping scene, in which Joe finally tries to confront what he means to Gracie, Moore deftly attempts to turn the tables on Melton regarding just who is/was the victim and perpetrator. By the conclusion, however, it’s clear that the only way this couple can survive is by labeling each other as equally complicit rather than acknowledging anything more disturbingly definitive.

In balancing this trio of delusion and repression, Haynes provocatively pushes us to question any initial positions of moral superiority. Whether it’s picking at the scabs of the past, negging the choice of a graduation dress, or taking advantage of victims for their own curiosity or satisfaction…everyone in May December has their own trauma they long to repress. Each of them has dealt with it in a myriad of unhealthy ways that, arguably, in turn, beget more trauma. There’s no clear way to break this cycle of abuse and abuser, not when there’s potentially something to gain from the propagation of this process on both an individual and societal level. There’s always a reward to be gained for our lack of self-awareness–which, as the cameras roll on Elizabeth’s production, suggests that any attempt to search for the truth will only leave us blindly hungering for more. 

May December opens in limited release on November 17th courtesy of Netflix, followed by a streaming debut on December 1st.

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