‘May December’ was uneasy.
They say that May is the summer of youth, that December is the winter of our lives and Director Todd Haynes mirrors this metaphor with a side of ick in the dark comedy May December, leaving audiences unsettled and pondering.
Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore lead this narrative of recurring trauma and forbidden love amongst a cast of upcoming supporters including Charles Melton who plays the character of Joe, the grown-up co-star in his wife’s turbulent life. The film is set in a small town in Savannah, Georgia where locals recall Gracie’s infamous tabloid story that we are all dying to know more about. Portman plays TV actress Elizabeth Berry and becomes detective as she throws herself into the life of Gracie Appleton, whose past is loosely based on the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher who was jailed for seducing her sixth-grade student in the late 1990s.
We meet now fifty-nine-year-old Gracie (Moore) and thirty-six-year-old Joe (Melton), a seemingly happy couple in their own world of normality, hosting a barbeque for the arrival of Elizabeth Berry (Portman), a well-known television actress taking on the role of the controversial Gracie, in a film of her life. She bakes cakes and he raises butterflies in cages. Their children, twins Charlie and Mary, waltz in and out with friends, living normal teenaged lives are due to graduate and leave for college in the coming days. Elizabeth is asked by a family friend to ‘be kind’ in her portrayal of Gracie, but it is the package found by Elizabeth that sets the unsettling tone. A delivery of faeces that is handled without surprise. This has been going on for years, more than twenty, but is getting less now, Joe reassures Elizabeth as he bins the box and offers hand sanitiser in a manner of routine. Gracie’s role of wife is distorted when she gives instructions to Joe and reminds him of how many beers he has had. Pair this with looped dissonant, low-register piano and the mood is thick with distain. We know this is not normal, there is more to be revealed about this couple and their tryst.
Actress Elizabeth takes her role of leading lady with much seriousness as she lines up interviews with Gracie’s previous husband and children and digs for clues within the family home. A folded photo of a young Gracie holding her newborn child reveals her feet in shackles, imprisoned. The dated tabloids tease us with only parts of the story revealing that Gracie was thirty-six when she first seduced thirteen-year-old Joe and they are still together to this day. Married and seemingly happy, with Gracie firmly in the driver’s seat, she is the puppeteer for the multiple members of her different lives. He was her conquest and we are privy to more of her victims including the quail she hunts, defeathers and serves for an evening meal.
Julianne Moore is perfect in this role. Her baby voice and lisp develop mid-sentence when facing her own trauma inflicted by older brothers when we learn the details of her troubling childhood. It is the darkness of night that reveals this and only between she and her youthful husband at first. He consoles her and the roles are again slanted. Are they lovers or a mother and child we are witnessing? It is blurred, but we want more.
It is Elizabeth’s search for answers that takes us on the journey of this unsettling story. She lives and breathes the life of Gracie to portray her character, even claiming an intimate moment with Joe, the man-child who has been controlled for most of his life. While searching, Elizabeth finds the pet shop where Gracie found Joe his first job, as her assistant, where their rendezvous began. Within the darkened blue light of the fish tanks and nocturnal sounds of the animals, the interactions between the lovers are re-enacted by Elizabeth as she becomes Gracie and acts out what she thinks happened between them there. Haynes is again playing with boundaries in this scene, tantalising his audience, as Portman silently writhes for the camera and chuckles at the absurd nature of her role.
It is the awkward silences that stand out in this film. White noise is juxtaposed by the deep, dark scandal that took place. Moore portrays psychopathic Gracie with such control, conjuring up ideas in our minds about what this woman is capable of. In a scene, set directly to a bathroom mirror, Gracie shows Elizabeth how she applies her makeup, a task that seems trivial at first but we soon feel the intimacy between them. Elizabeth is becoming Gracie and the camera captures a moment of stillness between them as they both look into it, again unsettling voyeuristic audiences in a heart-pounding scene of ‘what-if?’ We know Gracie is capable of seduction and this scene may well go in that direction. Again, leaving the audience unnerved.
Icky and formidable, ‘May December’ depicts the somewhat true story of a woman deeply affected by her life as a child. Haynes paces out the scenes with a score of repetitive orchestral sounds as a metaphor for the turbulence of Gracie Appleton’s swaddling state of denial. ‘May December’ synchronises moral quandaries through a lens of intrigue for an audience who like to be dappled at the edge of their values and will certainly have voyeurs spreading rumours.
‘May December’ opens in cinemas on February 1st for a limited Australian run.