'May December' review: Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore dazzle, but Todd Haynes' drama is too detached for its own good

‘May December’ review: Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore dazzle, but Todd Haynes’ drama is too detached for its own good

There is a postmodern horror about performance as predation hidden under the gaze of the semiotician in Todd Haynes may december, a complex drama, intimately intimate and at the same time detached, at times almost clinical. The director is delving into familiar territory: self-knowledge and public perception, identity and duality, transparency and performance, social norms and the sexual outlaw. But the story’s emotional volatility ends up being somewhat muted by the approach, likely making this a tough sell beyond devoted Haynes admirers.

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What Want giving the film a remarkable degree of traction, however, are the compelling performances of Natalie Portman and Haynes’ frequent muse Julianne Moore as two women with conflicting agendas, one trying to delve into the past and another who has spent two decades trying to bury him. One startling monologue Portman delivers in one mirror in particular demands to be seen. But both leads do a rousing job with characters constantly revealing different sides of themselves, which is fitting given that one of Haynes’ recognized inspirations was that of Bergman. Person.

may december

The bottom line

Always interesting but also a bit remote.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Launch: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Cory Michael Smith, Elizabeth Yu, Gabriel Chung, Piper Curda, DW Moffet, Lawrence Arancio
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriter: Samy Burch

1 hour and 53 minutes

The press releases for the film make no mention of it, but the root of the story recalls the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a Washington state teacher who became a registered sex offender and served time after pleading guilty to the rape of second grade of a 13 year old boy from his sixth grade class. Their story became a tabloid sensation in the late ’90s, with feverish headlines about rape and romance (the latter fueled by both parties’ insistence that the relationship was consensual).

Like Letourneau, Moore’s character Gracie Atherton-Yoo was in her late 30s when she was caught having sex in a pet store warehouse with fellow Korean American Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), 13 at the time. borne their first child while in prison and later got married. Their case scandalized the nation, giving them a degree of notoriety from which they have since retired. However, selling exclusive wedding photos to a tabloid helped fund their home in Savannah, Georgia. Two decades on, hate mail deliveries of canned feces are rarer, but they haven’t completely stopped.

Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, an actress preparing to play the role of Gracie in a film, who travels to Savannah to follow her and Joe and study the life they have built together, with the goal of bringing the truth to her. interpretation. Gracie is assumed to hope that the project corrects some of the falsehoods still out there and that she and Joe are compensated for their life rights. But given that Gracie has evidently been burned many times (“Remember Judge Judy?”) and how reluctant she is to reflect on the past, Samy Burch’s script’s inability to explain why she’s being granted access presents a small hole. .

From the outset, Haynes plays with how stories like Gracie and Joe’s are received and interpreted by the general public, particularly with his use of music. He punctuates the scenes—sometimes in humorously subversive ways that flirt with melodrama or soap opera—with the portentous opening tune of Michel Legrand’s baroque-inspired score for Joseph Losey The intermediary.

Elizabeth first meets the couple at a barbecue in their backyard, to which she is presented with a complimentary bottle of wine from the management’s welcome pack at her elegant lodgings. Gracie has imagined a woman sitting there silently judging her from behind her sunglasses, and a protective friend asks Elizabeth to be nice, telling her, “It really does feel like things just settled down. And now you’re making a movie.”

Elisabetta presents herself as a non-judgmental ally, initially asking not too invasive questions and busily taking notes on every single detail. But when her questions begin to stray from the film’s two-year span, Gracie becomes defensive, introducing a brittle line to her exchanges with the actress. However, she shares her makeup techniques, takes Elizabeth to her flower arranging class, and later invites her to follow her baking technique for the cakes she sells in the community.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth begins interviewing other people connected to Gracie, including her first husband Tom Atherton (DW Moffet), which starts out amiably enough but feels awkward when she goes into detail. She also speaks to Gracie’s lawyer Morris (Lawrence Orange), who reveals that local acceptance of Gracie isn’t quite what she seems. Elizabeth also meets Gracie’s eldest son with Tom, Georgie (Cory Michael Smith, making the most of just a couple of scenes), a brash gay singer who claims his mother ruined his life.

But the most enlightening glimpses come from spending time with Gracie herself. A formidable scene in a clothing store is skillfully shot by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt — taking over from Haynes’ longtime cinematographer Ed Lachmann due to the latter’s injury — to put Elizabeth between two Gracies thanks to the shop mirror. He demonstrates her downright critical side with an indirect stake on the body of her daughter Mary (Elizabeth Yu). Moore is delightful letting that same tart side emerge when Elizabeth rubs it the wrong way.

Mary and her twin brother Charlie (Gabriel Chung) are about to graduate and go to college. That impending change in the empty nest seems to weigh heavily on Joe especially, along with thoughts of the past raised by Elizabeth’s presence.

Unlike Gracie, who has the release valve of occasional bursts of crying, Joe hasn’t fully processed what happened. While the filmmakers don’t condone Gracie’s behavior, they don’t mistreat her either. But there’s a subtle sense that Joe treats her like the adult and vice versa — hints of condescending demeanor are nearly undetectable in expert readings of Moore — which means Gracie wrote the official narrative on how their relationship began.

The fundamental difference between Gracie and Elizabeth is established when the first expresses her preference not to dwell on the past and the second admits that she finds it useful to reflect on previous choices and mistakes. Gracie never seems to have fully realized that what she did was wrong, though she points out that while she may be naive, she’s not insecure.

The stealthy monster in all of this is Elizabeth, with Portman deftly balancing the character’s refined interpersonal skills with her ravenous ambition, making every nugget of information and every behavioral clue a fair game as research material. In an early homage, she visits the pet store where Gracie and Joe were caught in the act, parking in the doorway of the warehouse and writhing in imaginary sexual pleasure, recalling the craziest extremes at Portman’s Black Swan tour. You may wish for more scenes of that tenor, giving the film a more vital pulse.

The most shocking developments show Elizabeth’s willingness to exploit Joe’s vulnerability in a scene that brings a welcome rise in temperature and a dash of lurid Single white female unsettling. Even worse is what immediately follows, when she literally establishes that she is the adult. The film is not the best advertisement for the humanity of the actors.

Melton fits the part very well, with a particular kind of beauty that still bears evident traces of her teenage face, even if the limits of her range are shown in some of the more emotional scenes. To be honest though, there aren’t many young actors who wouldn’t be outclassed by Portman and Moore. The turbulence uncorked in Gracie and Joe’s marriage threatens serious damage, but somehow the film remains too understated to be dramatically satisfying.

The principal actors assure that it’s always fascinating, but despite the gritty nature of the reopened wounds, it’s all a bit glacial. Blauvelt’s camera pans at regular intervals to the lush greenery from which Joe collects tiny eggs for his hobby of raising monarch butterflies. Those images suggest a greenhouse atmosphere of which the rather academic may december could have used a little more.