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May December

Released 2023. Director: Todd Haynes

REMEMBER THE TV SERIES DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES? If Gracie and Joe, the couple at the centre of May December, moved into Wisteria Lane, they’d instantly out-scandal everybody and become the object of hushed judgments among the housewives. You see, when Gracie and Joe were caught having sex in the pet store where they worked, Gracie was not only married with kids but she was 36 and Joe was only a 7th-grader, aged 13.

Although the movie doesn’t explicitly acknowledge so, Gracie and Joe are based on the sensational case of a Seattle high-school teacher who had an affair with her 12-year-old student, went to prison while pregnant with his baby and upon release after seven years the couple were married.

With the Internet at your fingertips I’m sure you can find out their names if you really want to. As the filmmakers of May December have chosen not to name the real-life couple, I will do the same here.

In this fictitious set-up, the story of Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) is about to be made into a movie. Elizabeth, an actress played by Natalie Portman, has come to spend time with Gracie and Joe in preparation for her role. Twenty years have passed since the salacious beginnings of their relationship and now Gracie and Joe have three college-age children. They still live in the same city and not far from family and friends who knew them when the affair first came to light. It’s not uncommon for Gracie to run into her ex-husband Tom or their children and granddaughter who, by the way, all maintain a cordial relationship with Gracie. Joe still visits his dad. Their friends and neighbours drop by regularly and place orders for Gracie’s cake business.

The actress talks to them, takes notes, observes and begins to form her own opinions. What she sees is a normal family, working parents, busy lives, teenage kids who do normal teenage kids stuff. Just your standard family it’d seem.

It feels almost prying seeing Elizabeth and Gracie in their moments of revealing and sharing. Two women of identical build, one subtly mimicking the mannerism and body language of the other. Elizabeth shadows Gracie and copies how she sits, learning to move like her, sound like her and think like her. In one extreme instance, Elizabeth goes to the stock room in the same pet store and imagines the couple’s first sexual encounter.

When the two women are together, you wonder what they’re thinking about each other. Like some non-identical twins reunited late in life, there’s a bond forming though in their case the connection tends towards manipulative and self-serving. Joe keeps his distance initially until his libido pushes him across the line.

All three of them have something personal and selfish to gain from this arrangement. Trust and intimacy is so inextricably entwined that when betrayal creeps in it’s hardly surprising given the tabloid nature of the story they’re trying to tell. Elizabeth has always maintained that her reason for taking on this role is to tell the truth. Her presence and questions gradually begin to cause friction, sow doubts and she becomes a destabilising influence.

When Todd Haynes tells a story about complicated relationships from a woman’s perspective he’s always intuitive and incisive, most notably in Far From Heaven and Carol. May December is an imprecise draft by comparison. The movie itself is like the actress Elizabeth, ostensibly probing characters with an unsavoury past to glean a deeper understanding. And like the actress, the movie doesn’t ask the right questions to reveal her subjects’ honest thoughts about themselves, their past or their personal accountability and not what they think the actress wants to hear.

Whether the blame lies more with Samy Burch’s script or Haynes’s direction, in May December everyone is just skirting and walking on eggshells trying to be polite. The word paedophile never comes up when discussing the genesis of the couple’s relationship. How do we interpret Gracie’s denial? Joe brooding over his lost youth and his yearning to be free is conveyed through a cumbersome metaphor of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Michel Legrand’s music from The Go-Between (1971) is repeatedly used here and the overdramatic four-note score is the equivalent of attention-grabbing tabloid headlines, trumpeting a hammy undertone. The first time it thunders over the soundtrack is when Gracie opens the fridge and solemnly declares, “I don’t think we have enough hotdogs.” You can’t really expect me to take the movie seriously after that.

Every character in the movie knows the nature of the story they’re a part of. Everyone making the movie knows (you’d hope) what kind of story they’re telling. And yet they studiously avoid looking the beast in the eye. A current of psychosexual tension runs through the movie but May December doesn’t bring about meaningful illumination through the lies, denial, dodging and domestic discontent. We never really get to the heart of either the dubious collaboration between the actress and her subject, or the disintegrating core in a splintering marriage. What we get is insight on the level of daytime soap.

Click image above to view trailer. New window will open.


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