‘May December’ was outstanding.
Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch deliver a mesmerising work about an actress’s attempts to understand the person they portray, exploring a disturbing taboo that is met with unease at its very mention. ‘May December’ approaches its subject matter with deft realism and the driest of humour, so much so that it’s not clear when or if you should ever be laughing.
Julianne Moore portrays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a woman who, in 1992, was caught having sex with 13-year-old Joe Yoo (Charles Melton). 23 years later, the two are married and have three children of their own. Our window into their world is actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who enters their lives to research for her upcoming role in a film about the two.
Straight out the gate, ‘May December’ features three absolute powerhouse performances from its leads. Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Gracie is all at once pathetic and absurd. Gracie is no moustache twirling villain, and at times seems quite jovial and pleasant, but the humour of Burch’s screenplay gives Moore plenty of opportunities to show just how paper-thin the façade is. Moore’s ability to turn on the waterworks and subtly snap at people brilliantly accentuates the character’s cognitive dissonance.
Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Elizabeth Berry initially seems to be the audience POV character, the normal person whisked into the reality of some eccentrics. However, Berry is also written to great effect as a satire of the method actor, who herself appears to not be quite right in the head. Portman’s portrayal makes for a chaotic protagonist, whose motives are skewed and unclear. Berry seems to be altruistic and sympathetic to Joe, but there is an ever-present cynicism and selfishness to the character that makes for a complex and enthralling dynamic between them.
The big surprise of this movie, however, is Charles Melton as Joe. Compared to Moore and Portman, Melton is practically an unknown, yet he goes toe to toe with them and delivers the only truly sympathetic performance of the film. Initially a reserved, quiet character who seems content with his life, Joe reaches a turning point in the second act that allows Melton to display an incredible range as an emotionally stunted teenager trapped in a 36-year-old’s body.
Burch’s script (from a story co-written with Alex Machanik) takes its time unravelling the details of what happened 23 years earlier, as different characters explain it from their perspectives. In a sly commentary about the way victims are treated in these narratives, Joe himself is almost treated as an afterthought until later in the film. A scene where Berry is probed by drama students about why she picked the role reveals her fascination with the “complex” unlikeable characters. The scene comes at a time when the victim, Joe, has barely said a word, and the perpetrator, Gracie, has dominated the film’s attention.
Todd Haynes’ direction with cinematographer Christopher Blauvett elevates the presentation tremendously. They never miss an opportunity to frame a scene in a creative or off-putting way. ‘May December’ features many long, unbroken takes reflected through mirrors, and scenes that would otherwise just be a simple back and forth conversation are now turned into intimate conversations between characters that aren’t looking at each other, but at the audience.
Another thing that dominates the viewing experience is the score. Marcelo Zarvos’ score adapts and re-orchestrates Michel Legrand’s score for the movie ‘The Go-Between.’ It is at once a strength and a weakness of the movie, as the score is all-intrusive, loud and unapologetic in its emotional manipulation. Sometimes, when the score kicks in at the end of a scene, there is a sense that emotions are heightened and the stakes are raised, but this is not always the case in the scene itself. There’s an obvious juxtaposition being used here, as it reflects Gracie’s skewed priorities and melodrama. Personally however, I feel some of the later scenes would have benefited from some quiet reflection instead. All the same, the score does wonders for the movie’s humour, often serving as the punchline for a joke in itself.
There’s little else to be said about ‘May December.’ It is a fantastically shot, incisively directed, superbly written film with three incredible performances. Though its themes are dark, and its content may be a tough pill for audiences to swallow, its presentation is nothing short of exceptional.
‘May December’ opens in cinemas on February 1st for a limited Australian run.