Malicious Melodrama - Todd Haynes’ ‘May December’

Published: Sun 18 Feb 2024 07:30 PM
Loosely based on a tabloid headline, Todd Haynes has directed another intriguing and mysterious portrayal of an enigmatic and contradictory female who was jailed as a sex offender for her affair with a naive high school student over two decades her junior. After her release, they subsequently married and raised family of their own which lead to plenty of uncomfortable and embarrassing social interactions among the residents of Tybee Island, located off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. “Insecure people are dangerous,” comments Julianne Moore’s character Gracie in this malicious melodrama which Peter Bradshaw suggests has overtones of both Ingmar Bergman and Patricia Highsmith.
That’s pushing it a bit. The tabloid ambience derives more directly from the much-publicised case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a Seattle-area teacher who, aged 34 in 1996, seduced her twelve-year-old student, Vili Fualaau, who Fualaau came from a minority community and became a father before he entered high school. Letourneau spent several years in prison on statutory rape charges, married Fualaau after her release, and continued to insist on absolution through the power of true love. These lurid details lurk constantly beneath the surface of ‘May December,’ providing prurient satisfaction for anyone who may have wondered what occurred when the sordid spotlight faded. Fualaau and Letourneau separated in 2019, she died of cancer in 2020, and their younger daughter became pregnant at the age of twenty-four.
Moore, who seems constitutionally incapable of providing an unintelligent performance, is more than ably supported by Natalie Portman as an exploitative Hollywood star tasked with portraying her character in a TV movie. Questions about who exactly is the predator and whom the prey abound as Portman’s method actor Elizabeth Berry is welcomed into their home to research the ‘true story’ of her relationship with Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), a sensitive pet store owner who sublimates his angst by collecting caterpillars and watching them pupate into Monarch butterflies.
Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo as a controlling and neurotic woman who both mothers and bullies the permanently puzzled and half-Korean Joe. Their dysfunctional marriage is similarly founded on a sex scandal that once gripped the tabloids after she seduced Joe when he was thirteen and she was a married woman in her thirties. Grace got pregnant, went briefly to jail, and remained a registered sex offender, but their relationship somehow survived as they raised three children of their own. Gracie inhabits a world of pastel Martha Stewart kitsch in which she apparently bakes cakes for a living and spends her spare time flower-arranging. The children from her first marriage are the same age as Joe, the most unstable of whom is Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), an unstable neurotic who has been seriously damaged by the whole messy business.
Gracie is to be played Elizabeth (Portman), a Juilliard-educated actor who wants to make a career move away from the soapy television show about vets that made her famous. She serves as our proxy, searching for prurient psychological reasons for Gracie’s behaviour, but discovering only red herrings and persona abasement. She pores over magazine headlines that blare about the “Pet Shop Romance” and offer “Gracie’s Story: My Baby Behind Bars!” Photos of Gracie in court and with her newborn baby in prison inform her initial (poor) imitations of Gracie - her pout, her posture and (in a disturbing scene in which she scours the creepy pet shop where the affair began for ‘atmosphere’) her imagined pose of sexual ecstasy.
Elizabeth hangs out with the starstruck family as though she was their new best friend, asking personal questions of everyone and trying to imitate Gracie’s mannerisms, makeup, and slight lisp. The family seem to hope that Elizabeth will be sympathetic, alchemically transforming their notoriety and shame into celebrity like hers, but there are no guarantees. As Elizabeth gets closer to Joe, whose age she is, her Method approach involves a romantic attraction to this shy, repressed, and damaged man whom she feels she can save from his stagnant relationship with a demanding and manipulative older woman.
As befits the director of ‘Carol,’ Haynes provides both female actors a plethora of rug-chewing opportunities, with Moore supplying her almost obligatory self-pitying and red-eyed weeping scene, while Portman gives a lecture on acting to a high school drama class in which she enthusiastically describes how sex scenes can become authentically enjoyable for the participants (“Are you pretending to feel pleasure - or pretending not to feel pleasure?”), before indulging in a brief fuck with Joe on her hotel-room floor.
Samy Burch’s screenplay reveals its verbal conceits through Elizabeth’s assiduous note-taking, overly deferential questions and strained niceties, and wonderfully deluded comments from Gracie like “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” Casually recalling her own meeting with Judge Judy, Gracie bounces between bitchy brags and barbed wire comments wrapped in cellophane. The deliciously overwrought score by Marcelo Zarvos (itself an adaptation of Michel Legrand’s portentous chords from Joseph Losey’s ‘The Go-Between’) adds a frisson of forbidden passion. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s clever framing repeatedly captures mirror images and symmetrical reflections that reinforce the prickly relationship between actor and subject in “a kind of hostile symbiosis and tacit rivalry,” as Adrian Horton has noted.
As a result, many reviews have found the film full of comedic overtones and Netflix submitted it to the Golden Globes as a comedy, but there’s really very little to laugh about as we watch these vain and self-involved characters try to out-manoeuvre each other in a trough of transgressive trash culture that overvalues fame and celebrity. They are, in fact, horribly self-indulgent and shallow people wrapped up in a cynical and parasitic dance of self-absorption.
howard davis
Scoop Arts Editor
Educated at Cambridge and UCLA; worked on several major Hollywood feature films and as a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Los Angeles; currently enjoying life in Wellington.
Contact Howard Davis

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