Cannes 2023 review: May December (Todd Haynes)

“There are many layers to this onion, yet the onion stinks a little because despite the campy melodrama the film remains dry and mechanical, and lacks the warmth of his previous works.”

Scandal fascinates us. When somebody does something that falls outside our norms, in particular a celebrity, we eat the story up with abandon. Gossip trades fare well because of our hunger for juice, and it fuels clickbait. But what does all of this do for the people at the centre of the scandal? American director Todd Haynes takes this concept and uses it to examine the way cinema handles these kinds of situations. May December, starring a sometimes luminous Natalie Portman, is a camp look at an actor’s process of transformation into a character, which Haynes turns into a satire of the entertainment industry’s portrayal of scandal. While fun, the film lacks a beating heart and is the second middling Cannes effort in a row for the director, after 2017’s limp Wonderstruck.

Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), star of the popular (and fictional) TV show Norah’s Ark, travels to Savannah to spend a few days with the woman she is about to play in an indie film. The woman in question, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), was the centre of a scandal many years prior when at the age of 37 she was caught engaging in a so-called May-December relationship with a 13-year-old boy, Joe Yoo. As her family name suggests, their relationship rode out the media storm as well as Gracie’s incarceration, and they are still married over two decades later. Gracie hopes that the new film will give her side of the story some nuance, and it is up to Elizabeth to provide that. But as Elizabeth starts to peel away the layers of the woman she is set to play, a woman who was the same age as Elizabeth is now when she engaged in her illicit affair with Joe (played as an adult by Charles Melton), the picture of a happy family that Gracie is trying to hold up starts to crumble. Is Elizabeth really understanding her character, or is she misleading herself; and how honest is she in her own motivations as she looks for Gracie’s?

At one point in May December Todd Haynes has a little fun with the concept of his film: Elizabeth, tucked away in her large rented mansion (“Quaint,” she tells her producer over the phone), is watching a bit of a crappy TV movie about Gracie and Joe’s affair made at the time the drama unfolded. This is Haynes’ wink at the camera, letting the audience in on the secret that he is effectively making a terrible TV movie. It is not as if there weren’t tell-tale signs before. Haynes is known for his precision in mise-en-scène and setting up a shot, but in May December the framing is sloppy, the image blandly lit, and the dialogue flat. The director has often been accused, precisely because of his technical and artificial approach, of being cold and detached, and even if in May December he ramps up the melodrama, with the score being particularly and appropriately over the top, the feeling of artifice still lingers. Yet artifice is exactly the theme that Haynes deals with through the character of Elizabeth, an actress. By nature someone pretending to be a character instead of the real thing, even if she tells herself that she wants to get to the core of the person she is portraying. Does she even believe that, though? When Elizabeth visits the acting class of Gracie and Joe’s daughter (Elizabeth Yu), when asked about what it is like to do a sex scene she says that at a certain point the line blurs between pretending to experience pleasure and pretending not to experience pleasure. This idea of playing a role is constantly at play in May December, whether it is Elizabeth or Gracie we are looking at. And on a higher and more meta level Haynes has May December play the role of a bad movie. But intentionally making a bad movie requires mastery.

The film opens with images of monarch butterflies, a very pretty looking but blunt metaphor for an actor’s transformation. The butterflies are Joe’s, a tender man who is still after 24 years of marriage treated like a child by his older wife. As the high school graduation of his twins draws near Joe starts to reflect on his life. In a moment of vulnerability he gives Elizabeth one of the letters Gracie wrote to him, which leads to a moment of true actorly transformation: Portman reads the letter, breaking the fourth wall, as Moore’s character. The mimicry, the vocal inflections down to a little lisp, the rhythm: Portman’s acting in this scene is incredible, and when she throws her head back at the end of the monologue it feels like performing an exorcism; this truly was becoming a character. Elsewhere neither she nor Moore is given much to play with outside of twin scenes of the pair of them in front of a mirror, in which their characters try to pry into each other’s secrets. The rest of Moore’s performance is sadly reduced to keeping up appearances (another layer of artifice) in public and crying in private. Her role is that of the suspect to Portman’s investigator protagonist. The latter has more material to sink her teeth into, like the aforementioned acting class scene, though most of her episodic interactions with Gracie’s friends and family are perfunctory and giving off ‘cop show’ vibes.

If a film is intentionally bad, is it still a bad movie? This is a hard question to ponder when you actually have to put a grade at the top your review. On a surface level May December is nearly unwatchable, riddled as it is with clichés and convoluted plotting in what is easily Haynes’ ugliest-looking picture to date. But when you remove the ugly veil, the clockwork that makes the film tick is quite beautiful. Intentional camp is rarely the best camp, and Haynes gets stuck in a technical exercise that on a meta level is a fun commentary on filmmaking but never really manages to fully capture it. There are many layers to this onion, yet the onion stinks a little because despite the campy melodrama the film remains dry and mechanical, and lacks the warmth of his previous works.

(c) Image copyright: May December Productions 2022 LLC