★★★★★ - THE TELEGRAPH
- The Oscar winners are brilliant in Todd Haynes’s disturbing and fascinatingly-layered Hollywood tale about consent, denial and exploitation -
No one’s life is a story in their own eyes; everyone’s is to other people. How we can ever know one another fully, or look in the mirror with objectivity, are fairly profound questions, and rich themes for Todd Haynes in May December – a teasing, ticklish, fascinatingly layered study of our defined identities and the isolation that comes with them. It’s about acting, denial, wrongdoing and the age of consent, but also about growing up, and the different ways we tread through that process, or fail to.
While married to her first husband, Gracie (Julianne Moore) had a notorious affair which saw her reviled in America’s tabloid press, and sent, pregnant, to prison. The reason was the age of her paramour, Joe (Charles Melton) – he was then a 13-year-old Korean-American schoolboy, in the same class as her eldest son.
So far, so Notes on a Scandal. Where the film begins is not with any of this old news, but with the arrival of an actress named Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) at the home Gracie and Joe have since made in Savannah, Georgia. Here, Gracie spends all day fretting about what’s in the fridge, preparing for the graduation of her twins, and baking cakes people only buy to keep her occupied. Elizabeth, cast to play Gracie in a film about their shocking affair, has asked for time to research this relationship up close, 23 years after Gracie and Joe were caught together in a pet shop’s storeroom.
Elizabeth’s process is the stuff of a grade A narcissist’s training in Hollywood, meaning she tests the waters, then starts to plunge in like a barracuda. “Seeking the truth” on some deep level of empathy is her stated M.O., but the deeply weird job that is acting has rarely seemed a less suitable qualification. She gets kinky kicks out of the saga in private, like an emotional vampire, already dreaming of her Oscars speech.
Portman, sly but so controlled, revels in these backstage freakshows, and in every excuse Elizabeth assumes she has to be a professional thief of souls. Meanwhile, the tightly smiling Gracie rebuffs and contains her engagement – questioning, for instance, why it’s anyone’s business what relationship she has with her older children, seeing as the film script only spans 1992-1994.
In the psychological tennis game that unfolds between these two – involving the most scenes of actressy mirror-play since Bergman’s Persona – we’re often blindsided about who’s on serve. Advantage Gracie: there’s some mechanism missing internally which enables her to remain guilt-free, for all the burden she has placed on multiple lives, her split family forming a Cubist pyramid of dysfunction. “I am naïve”, she confesses with a disturbing pride, in her slightly lisping voice.
Advantage Elizabeth: she snakes her way into confidences from the ex-husband, the oldest son (a reliably phenomenal Cory Michael-Smith) and from Joe – movingly played by Melton as a depressive hunk with coiled, shifty body language, because he’s remained stuck in his cocoon, cruelly arrested in an eternal boyhood. (It’s never Advantage Joe.)
Haynes’s compassionate eye on the hysteria underlying domestic contentment is at peak strength here; his chosen score, adapted from Michel Legrand’s themes from The Go-Between (1971), is a juicy homage to that other melodrama of stolen innocence, in which the past was a foreign country. Here, it’s the people who are stalking gimlet-eyed across each other’s borders, and still understanding nothing.
- Tim Robey, THE TELEGRAPH
May December is now playing at Light House Cinema!