Todd Haynes’ May December, about an actress researching a notorious marriage in hopes of delivering an “honest” onscreen portrait, is mired with half-formed characters and little insight into either the artistic process or its sensational subject matter.
Haynes, the visionary indie filmmaker who graduated from the iconoclastic 1988 experiment Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (told with Barbie dolls and effectively banned by Richard Carpenter) launched his career with the flagrantly radical 1990 queer triptych Poison, courting controversy after being awarded a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts production grant before winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, an auspicious beginning to what would become a career of adventurous projects.
With an idiosyncratic canon featuring the 70s glam rock opus Velvet Goldmine, Douglas Sirk-esque period melodrama Far from Heaven, frightening immune system allegory Safe, Bob Dylan experiment I’m Not There, HBO’s Mildred Pierce and the clandestine lesbian love story Carol, Haynes has demonstrated nothing if not a repertoire of impeccable formal (and informal) audacity, daring subject matter diversity and resolute unpredictability.
Taking his May December cue from the headline capturing crime saga of married school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau—who in 1997 was arrested act age 34 for child rape upon discovery of a sexual relationship with a twelve-year-old pupil, resulting in two prison stints, public scorn, a child born behind bars and, eventually, a decades-spanning marriage—Haynes delivers a film that commits to very little in the way of drama or aesthetic.
In a movie purportedly about the challenges of ever really learning objective truth (yet one that does not truly seek it), May December opens with Hollywood star Elizabeth Berry (a compulsively watchable Natalie Portman) arriving in Savannah, Georgia, home to unorthodox but seemingly happy married couple Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore, fine as expected) and husband Joe (Charles Melton), who are planning a birthday celebration in their quaint island community before being interrupted by an unexpected present—feces in a gift bag. This sentiment is de rigueur for the unsurprised couple, Gracie a pariah after marrying the pre-teen boy she molested—or was seduced by, according to her—while working decades earlier in the pet store where he secured a part-time job.
In the present, the odd couple seem content enough, Joe now a consenting adult at age 36, one child at college and two preparing to graduate high school. But beneath the surface Joe is clearly processing; not that self-consumed Gracie would notice, her time spent baking pineapple upside down cakes for sympathetic, paying neighbors and ordering Joe, who makes a living as an X-ray tech, about household duties.
So far, so good. Yet about a third of the way into May December we realize it isn’t developing; there is little pursuit of deeper meaning. Elizabeth’s “research” is superficial; not probing. Part of this is the picture’s primary theme of the complexities of knowing the truth about something that is simply an unexplainable enigma. Nonetheless, it plays as if screenwriters Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik have skirted trying to find out. Neither woman ever rises above two-dimensional; we never get inside.
Faring better is Melton in a slow-boil performance that expresses the spoils of a still young life robbed of youth. A young father close to his teen son, one remarkable moment finds parent and child smoking pot together; there is a sadness in Melton’s eyes as he expresses that he has “never done that” to a son having a full teenaged life of which he was deprived. Ditto his reaction after an encounter with Elizabeth—who informs him that he is “still young” and can do anything he wishes—and in a well wrought middle of the night confrontation where Joe queries Gracie on his childhood maturity to make the life decisions they did, Melton reduced as if a quivering child emerging to face a sternly unhappy parent. Joe, with a clearly conflicted inner life, also farms caterpillars (the film affords many close-ups of larvae lifecycles), and in one literal-minded moment, sets a Monarch free. The film alternately flirts with and skirts the notion of women who function as predators, Elizabeth’s possible exploitation of Joe for her research a potential recognition catalyst for him to confront the woman who exploited him decades earlier.
Despite such compensations, it is difficult to understand why Haynes was drawn to this subject; his film engenders little understanding for his two lead characters, one of whom is a remote, opportunistic showbiz type and the other a controlling, withholding and seemingly damaged cipher. Haynes never gives the women a single scene of penetrating conversation, no mutual exploration of Gracie’s shattered taboos or any real attempt on Elizabeth’s part to genuinely accomplish what she claims she has set out to do—learn more about her subject to effectively play her.
What happens between them instead? They speak largely in superficialities, briefly baking together, putting on make-up and mostly practicing avoidance. Where is the deep dive on her subject that Elizabeth has set out to accomplish? Alternately, much screen time involves her brief interviews with the family attorney (Lawrence Arancio), ex-husband (D.W. Moffett), troubled adult son from Gracie’s first marriage (Cory Michael Smith) and reticent pet shop owner (Charles Green), each of whom offers little more than what could be found in public record. Either Elizabeth doesn’t truly seem to be seeking first-hand truth (like the film) or she isn’t very good at her job, despite the starstruck local Savannah community. Her every move is an “outside in” process and this means that we never come to know Gracie. Given such banality, a caveat—the sight of Portman alone, erotically writhing at the scene of Gracie’s long past criminal seduction, provides one of the picture’s few surprising moments.
Near the end of May December, Elizabeth brings the fruits of her less than laborious research to bear on the TV-movie production, performing multiple takes of this seduction, crassly conceived as porn-esque come on antithetical to her promised sensitivity. Why she has taken the easy route to hoary sensationalism at the expense of introspection seems clear—there simply have been no nuanced discoveries that would allow otherwise, and any potentially useful revelations about Gracie or her situation have been handily reversed. This one great idea proves a fitting coda.
May December offers an enjoyably self-possessed performance from a Portman (who has never looked so fetchingly beautiful onscreen), gorgeous appropriation of Michel LeGrand’s striking score from 1971’s The Go-Between and an impressive turn from Melton, yet despite its ripe subject matter it generates little depth. One keeps waiting for a Persona-esque transference between the leads, a dollop of heightened, Almodovar-esque melodrama or even the glossy feminine mystiques found in Haynes Far from Heaven and Carol (or even an Almodovar-esque touch) that never arrive.