Todd Haynes is a director who has a way of making his films as deeply cerebral as they are poignantly reflective. This is best showcased in a scene from May December where Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an actor, addresses a class of aspiring students. One student asks how she approaches sex scenes, and she addresses that the lines can blur between acting and attraction. She notes a similar sensation when another student asks why actors would want to play villains. The obsession with the flawed is at the heart of this film and lingers in trying to understand deeply wounded and manipulative people, blurring that line as well.
Elizabeth travels to a community noted for the scandal of Gracie (Julianne Moore), a woman who had a sexual affair with a 13-year-old boy. That was years ago, and after serving time, Gracie married the grown-up Joe (Charles Melton). They have children, and those children have now grown up to set off for college. With graduation looming, Elizabeth visits to get a feel for Gracie’s plight better to portray the scandalous woman in an independent movie. Given that Gracie became the product of a trashy TV movie, Elizabeth aims to get this role right and not appear like a tabloid-style slice of exploitation on true crime.
There’s an absurdity placed in this film that feels like a genuine defense mechanism to such a troubled tale. The somber tension at Gracie’s home feels real but is also punctuated with music swelling around such inconsequential moments as running out of hot dogs. Elizabeth performs interviews around town and gets way too into her method acting, going so far as to imagine sexual pleasure at the spot in a pet store where Gracie had her way with Joe. There are also some beautifully sad moments, such as when Joe smokes weed for the first time with his teenage son and reacts so emotionally that he tries to apologize for the terrible moments he might be creating. It’s hilarious for Joe to be this reactive to pot, but also very touching for him wanting to wish the best for others that he may not be able to give.
The performances are incredibly nuanced and fascinating for this tricky topic. Portman and Moore are fantastic actors, and the scenes they share together are incredible. One of the best scenes features Gracie giving Portman a makeover with her brands to understand her as a person better. Tinged with dramatic music, it’s a small moment of intricate mind games where the tables seem to shift in who is studying who. As Elizabeth continues asking questions, she discovers more than she bargained for. With her many talks with Joe and those who knew Gracie best, Elizabeth thinks she’s making some impressive discoveries for playing her character. Or maybe she’s being strung along? It’s hard to tell when there are so many secrets swirling within Gracie’s household, where Gracie and Joe are not entirely truthful in trying to protect each other.
Loaded with awkwardness and temptation, May December is a tapestry of trauma and manipulation that is as intricately intriguing as it is bluntly amusing. It’s a film that keeps you guessing but also pondering on the nature of how sex and scandal become the spiciest of ingredients we gravitate towards like moths to flames. There’s a very telling moment when Elizabeth starts to play Gracie for the first time, and she demands multiple takes, feeling that there’s something real if she keeps going. Perhaps we view the same within ourselves, hoping our fascination will reveal more about ourselves and our obsessions. It’s a part of our humanity so dark that we almost have to laugh at it if only to make sense of a world that feels broken in one way or another.