The latest film from acclaimed director Todd Haynes tackles incendiary subject matter, but handles it with the thoughtful approach he’s known for. May December focuses on the scandalous relationship between Gracie, a woman in her mid-30s, and Joe, the teenage boy with whom she has an affair. With Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore leading the cast as Gracie and the actor researching her life, Haynes sets out to explore this controversial premise in his characteristically nuanced style.
Rather than sensationalizing the taboo central romance, Haynes aims to peel back the layers on its complex characters. He neither defends nor outright condemns Gracie’s actions, preferring to let the moral ambiguities simmer. The storyline seems destined to court controversy, but Haynes appears more interested in crafting an intimate character study than delivering salacious thrills.
Of course, it helps that Haynes has two powerhouses like Portman and Moore inhabiting the leads. Portman’s cool detachment as an actor obsessed with fully embodying a real person aligns nicely with the film’s focus on identity and performance. Meanwhile, Moore conveys both strength and vulnerability as the beleaguered Gracie. With Haynes guiding these compelling actresses, May December promises to deliver penetrating psychological insights rather than tawdry melodrama.
Some will surely dismiss May December as an attempt to capitalize on real-life scandal. But Haynes asks thoughtful questions about human nature while avoiding simplified judgments. He makes films that get under the skin. With its provocative premise laid bare, May December will likely spur discussion about the very nature of truth in relationships. Audiences anticipating a balanced, introspective character study versus sensationalism will find much to appreciate in Haynes’ approach. Let’s examine the movie closely to see if he succeeds in making a film as nuanced as it is provocative.
Peeling Back the Layers of a Complex Dynamic
At its core, May December centers on the relationship between Gracie Atherton-Yoo and her much younger husband Joe. But Todd Haynes doesn’t treat their controversial romance simply as taboo fodder. He’s more interested in examining the complex layers beneath the surface scandal.
When we meet Gracie and Joe years after their affair, they seem to have settled into an ordinary suburban existence. But the arrival of Elizabeth Berry threatens to expose unresolved tensions. Through strategic reveals and shifting perspectives, Haynes slowly unpacks the complicated history binding his central characters.
We learn that Gracie, a married 36-year-old teacher and mother of four, first met 12-year-old Joe when she hired him at the pet store where she worked. Their friendship turned romantic, landing Gracie in legal trouble when his parents found out. After doing her time, Gracie left her family and married Joe. Now 20 years later, they’ve raised three kids in Georgia.
On the surface, Gracie and Joe have transcended their unconventional start. But deeper fissures appear in their strained dynamic, revealing the emotional imbalance of their age gap despite their protests about destiny and true love. Gracie oscillates between fragility and control in relation to the compliant Joe. Their scenes form an unsettling, but thoughtful study of the pair’s complex psychology.
Portman’s Elizabeth Berry factors heavily into exposing the fault lines. An ambitious actor notorious for her extreme method acting, Elizabeth stays with Gracie’s family to prepare for the role. As she interviews the wounded people left in Gracie’s wake, a fuller picture emerges of both women.
We see Gracie’s controlling nature, but also her naivete. Elizabeth’s cool detachment as she mines Gracie for performance insights mirrors Gracie’s own self-centeredness. Yet her manipulations humanize Gracie. Both women turn out to be more complex than initial impressions suggest.
Of the supporting players, Gracie’s estranged son Georgie makes the biggest impact. A resentful loose cannon, he tries weaponizing Elizabeth’s investigation to villainize Gracie. But again, Haynes avoids clear heroes and villains, preferring nuance.
By slowly filling in the past while keeping us anchored in the present, Haynes paints a intimate, if unsettling, portrait of the forces binding his characters. Their roiling psychological undercurrents prove more compelling than the sensational aspects of the affair.
Navigating Moral Gray Zones with a Defiant Lens
Known for his flair for melodrama and passion for probing social taboos, Todd Haynes brings his artistic sensibilities to the provocative premise of May December. He eschews simplistic judgements, preferring to marinate in moral ambiguity. Through a biting script, inventive visuals, and evocative score, Haynes guides us into the gray zones.
At its heart, May December is about slippery notions of truth and perspective. Haynes plays with our tendency to accept initial impressions, exploiting our judgements of characters like Gracie and Elizabeth. He unravels their complicated motivations to challenge assumptions. The story becomes less about the scandal than about how we perceive scandals.
Gracie sees herself as misunderstood, clinging to her own righteous narrative. Elizabeth coolly contemplates playing Gracie without considering ethical implications. Each character creates their own fiction, blurring fact and fabrication. By putting us into their heads while keeping us at a distance, Haynes makes us complicit in their selective worldviews.
This deft exploration of perception anchors the film’s non-judgmental approach to the affair. Haynes exposes the relationship’s imbalance without condemnation. He sees gray where society sees black and white. The nuance sometimes frustrates our desire for clear villains and vindication. But that moral ambiguity feels true to the characters’ complex psychology.
Mirroring the thematic shades of gray, Haynes employs both restraint and melodrama in his storytelling style. He heightens emotional moments with soaring music and lush cinematography. But he often pivots to a calculated, Kubrickian detachment, utilizing unsettling static shots. The contrast creates an ambivalent tone that keeps us guessing.
For all its social edge, Haynes embraces May December as melodrama, leaning into simmering tensions. He adopts the female gaze, training his lens on Moore and Portman with adoring intimacy. Rifling through Gracie’s makeup kit becomes an unnerving horror set piece through lighting and composition. It’s a masterclass in imbuing the mundane with quiet menace.
May December shows Haynes in full command of his cinematic language. He renders the film’s suburban world with dreamy dread. As the story subverts expectations, so does Haynes’ kaleidoscopic filmmaking. He makes the scandal feel at once lurid and meditative, sensational and humanistic. It all coheres into a singular, defiant vision.
Explore the Legacy of a Comedy Legend: Uncover the impact of Albert Brooks on modern comedy in our in-depth analysis of ‘Albert Brooks: Defending My Life’. From stand-up to cinema, see how Brooks’ innovative approach to comedy has left an indelible mark.
Captivating Leads Inhabit Complex Characters
May December lives and breathes through the powerful performances of its leading ladies. Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore both embrace the opportunity to tackle complicated, flawed characters. Meanwhile, Charles Melton impresses in bringing emotional depth to his underwritten role.
As coolly calculating actor Elizabeth, Portman mesmerizes. She conveys calculating intelligence beneath superficial charm. We witness Elizabeth observing and mimicking others as she mines mannerisms to shape her performance. Portman imbues her with a researcher’s clinical detachment.
Yet she subtly suggests hidden layers in Elizabeth’s own artifice. When her façade briefly cracks, we glimpse messy humanity behind the mask. Portman makes her ruthlessness complicated and alluring. This may be her most nuanced, ambiguous work since Black Swan.
If Portman keeps us at an intriguing distance, Moore ushers us into Gracie’s tumult with intimacy. She movingly portrays Gracie as both strong and deeply damaged. Moore conveys iron-willed belief in her own truth alongside colossal denial. We see how Gracie clings to the comfort of her constructed reality.
Moore nakedly essays Gracie’s contradictions: resilience and fragility, naiveité and cunning. She elicits empathy for a character with skewed morals. It’s a masterclass in complicating knee-jerk impressions to reveal hidden depths.
While Gracie and Elizabeth drive the story, Melton brings poignancy to his underwritten role as Joe. His hangs his head with the shame of a child, while tentatively carrying himself with an adult’s resignation. Melton movingly channels the stunted melancholy of a man-child robbed of his adolescence.
With the film relying heavily on close-ups, the actors’ smallest expressions and mannerisms mesmerize. Portman, Moore and Melton all excel in revealing as much internally as their enigmatic characters repress externally. Their emotionally rich performances grant humanity to a lurid tale.
Explore the Human Condition Through Animation: Interested in how animation can explore deep themes like isolation, purpose, and the human condition? Check out our detailed analysis of “Carol & the End of the World”, where we delve into this groundbreaking series that uses humor and heart to tackle life’s big questions.
Exploring Contemporary Culture Through a Provocative Lens
While May December draws inspiration from real-life scandal, Todd Haynes utilizes the premise to hold a mirror up to modern society. He explores the tabloid obsession with salacious stories and the increasingly blurred lines between reality and entertainment.
The film’s central affair clearly echoes the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau case. But Haynes’ interest lies less in sensationalizing the romance than examining its surrounding culture. One that fixates on true crime as entertainment and casts swift judgement.
Through the camera’s eye of Elizabeth’s “research”, Haynes comments on our appetite for scandal just as much as Gracie’s questionable actions. The film asks who decides which unconventional relationships society deems unacceptable. And whether an outside lens can ever capture the messy truths of people’s intimate lives.
By depicting Elizabeth starring in a movie based on Gracie, the line between real life and fiction blurs. Reality TV and tabloid media already package human experience into digestible narratives. May December suggests we each do the same editing of reality in creating our own self-concepts. The truth becomes subjective.
The film’s suburban Savannah setting also holds significance. Haynes often explores the sinister underbelly beneath pristine middle class Americana. Here, whispers and sideways glances reveal a community that shuns social defiance. Haynes aims his lens at the judgement passing itself off as concern.
Some argue May December exploits real exploitative exploitation for art. But Haynes builds on scandal to dissect deeper cultural issues: perceptions of victimhood, society’s need for clear heroes and villains, the cycles of shame and judgment. The film holds up a mirror to human nature itself.
By training his lens on suburban hypocrisy and blurred reality, Haynes elevates his provocative premise into insightful social commentary. The film promises to push buttons and perceptions of moral absolutism.
A Nuanced and Unflinching Character Study
With May December, Todd Haynes once again proves himself a master of probing complex subject matter with nuance. He avoids exploitation or moralizing, instead creating a layered character study unafraid to sit with life’s uncomfortable ambiguities.
The film marks another superb collaboration between Haynes and Julianne Moore, with Natalie Portman also rising to the challenge in a trickier role. Haynes coaxes gripping, human performances from his leads while crafting an evocative tale questioning our relationship with scandal and subjectivity.
The plot lives more in the slow-burn psychological spaces than big dramatic moments. Hawkes seems less concerned with narrative fireworks than upending expectations and assumptions. For patient viewers, it makes for a haunting, contemplative experience.
May December won’t appeal to those seeking escapist thrills or neat conclusions. But its refusal to pass simplistic judgements resonates. Hawkes proves a director who wants us to dig deeper into the messiness of human nature and examine our own perceptions. It’s not always a comfortable ride, but the destination proves thought-provoking.
In the end, May December crafts an intimate character study from society’s thirst for scandal. And encourages us to take a hard look in the mirror.
With uncompromising vision, Haynes transforms sensationalism into a provocative character study rich in moral ambiguity. He elicits phenomenal performances while raising thoughtful questions about our relationship with scandal. A brave, unsettling triumph.
- Powerful lead performances from Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore. Both actresses inhabit complex, challenging roles.
- Nuanced direction and writing from Todd Haynes that explores moral gray areas rather than being didactic.
- Thought-provoking themes around truth, perspective, suburbia's dark underbelly. Raises questions about how we perceive scandal.
- Strong cinematography and score that elevate the melodramatic tones.
- Strong supporting turn from Charles Melton adds empathy.
- Socially relevant commentary on tabloid culture and blurred lines between fiction and reality.
- The provocative premise could be off-putting or too controversial for some audiences.
- Plot is slower paced and light on narrative fireworks. More focused on simmering tensions than big dramatic moments.
- Ambiguous ending may frustrate those looking for neat resolutions.
- Balance between melodramatic and cerebral elements in the style may seem disjointed to some.