May December – London Film Festival 2023 – Film Review

May December is a fitting description for Todd Haynes’ latest film. The film bears the same name as this rarely uttered phrase to indicate a relationship between someone in the spring of their life and another in the winter of their old age. The couple, in question, is beautifully depicted by Julianne Moore as Gracie and Charles Melton as Joe and their individual approaches to contending with being the subject of a new film, 20 years after their relationship was tabloid fodder. Natalie Portman’s character Elizabeth, an actress, is intrigued by their relationship and chooses to study their every move as research preparation for her new role in the film. Portman’s performance as the method acting obsessed actress can truly be described as an acting masterclass. Thus, such setting creates a tantalising, suspense-filled psychological drama as these three characters lives’ interweave. As a result, Gracie and Joe’s relationship is subject to further scrutiny with a public dissection leading to unforeseen consequences. The film remains compelling from start to finish as a testament to Haynes’ direction and yet we are being requested by Haynes to remain as non judgemental observers.

Fans, including myself, of Claude Chabrol dramas, The Nest, The Lesson and other films of that ilk, will relish the rich, complexity that May December embodies. The film whets the audience’s appetite, with its slow-paced, drip feed technique for revealing intrigue. Haynes seems to be deliberately keeping us on the back foot, from the outset, given that the identify of the characters is not initially declared. Still, May December’s emphasis on a strong but vulnerable matriarch, being Moore’s Gracie will spark discussion too and there will, undoubtedly, be new dinner party conversation topics, of having sufficient hot dogs for the barbecue, after that unforgettably deadpan delivery by Moore!

Haynes’ trademark interest in the human condition and relationship complexities, touched upon in Carol, are also evident within May December. Thus the gulf between spoken and unspoken desires is illustrated within Gracie and Joe’s relationship. However, Haynes also injects a degree of absurdity in to the film’s tone, which, unsatisfyingly, only serves to distract from addressing the taboo subject at the film’s heart. Traditional conventions are thus turned on their head and revealed, vicariously, through Elizabeth’s intense research probing.

Whilst the film’s principal relationship is inspired by the real life case of the former teacher Mary Kay Letorneau, who was imprisoned and placed on the sex offenders’ register for engaging in an underage relationship, Haynes’ focus is equally on the teacher-understudy relationship adopted by the two women. Other films have tackled this seemingly symbiotic dynamic such as Single White Female, All About Eve and others but having such competitive, insidious behaviours exposed, via outstanding performances, within the context of an illicit relationship, creates an undefined triangle amoreux, and firmly sandwiches a degree of unease amongst the melodrama.

This sense of unease and foreboding is further amplified by the decision to employ clumsy piano chords, within the score, to underline the campy, over the top theatrics without ignoring the underlying tension between the seemingly unlikeable characters. Such chords may be jarring and unsubtle but equally assist to unveil the inner workings of the film making process. Haynes continues to provoke further questioning of the natural roles that we inhabit within social constructs, by drawing parallels to these scenes of unstable behaviour patterns within the controlled environment inhabited by Joe and Gracie. Haynes’ message may therefore be blunt but undoubtedly shines the spotlight on the fact that we may all be continuously acting, and hiding our true selves, on a day to day basis.

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in May December
Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in May December

Furthermore, several scenes involve mirrors indicating that literal and figurative sense of reflection. Portman’s Elizabeth examines Moore’s Gracie studiously via a mirror and creepily mirrors her exact gestures. Additionally, such scenes manipulate the audience to reflect inwardly regarding life pretensions. May December, therefore, provides that analysis of the conscious and unconscious manipulative and seductive techniques employed as survival mechanisms within both marital relationships and friendship. Indeed, the degree of our own duplicity, in a quest to be ambitious and ‘always in control’ where unresolved traumas are on display, does not escape scrutiny.

As such, May December is a delicious, acting masterclass that equally seduces its audience with flirtatious appeal. Indeed, the film’s exploration of psychological machinations is equally chilling and intoxicating as the darker recesses of the mind are laid bare. This is particularly key when the veneer slips behind closed doors, Gracie is seen crying in several scenes in the privacy of her bedroom, and the calculative methods of key characters are exposed.

Portman additionally delivers a very meta performance. Indeed, May December may also be Haynes’ tribute to acting professionals and the dedication required by method actors. We are equally requested not to judge the extremities embraced by such actors. The film will certainly render audiences awestruck or else horrified by this practice. However, it is Charles Melton’s performance as the impressionable Joe, who displays symptoms of arrested development but elegantly and poignantly elicits sympathy and steals the show. His expressive puppy dog face during substantive emotional moments will pull at the heart strings. It will be exciting to see his future career trajectory after such an engrossing but heart-wrenching turn.

For all of its impressive elements, it would be remiss not to flag that May December tackles problematic areas, despite the general directional decision not to explicitly delve into the emotional ramifications. Such decision may prove to be questionable given the film’s attempts at comedy despite such disturbing subject matters as a backdrop. Yet, despite May December’s brilliant execution and stellar performances, it is unlikely to appeal to all on the basis of the controversial themes that arise and leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

Haynes is overall displaying his theatrical flair to seduce and lure us within the web of this fascinating, inspired psychological piece of storytelling. However, May December is the type of film that necessitates plenty of time to digest.

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