May December Review

May December
May December
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Julianne Moore and Todd Haynes are one of those rare director-actor couples who are always the perfect fit. The last of these is May December, their fourth film together since 1995 (Safe followed Far from Heaven and Wonderstruck), and it’s almost heartbreaking that they didn’t make dozens more. Moore is in sync with Haynes’ domestic melodrama frequency as her most recent work with him manifested; her quirky style goes a long way towards making a sexy, raw, hilarious, deeply disturbing tale about a tabloid queen with (Natalie Portman) shadowing her for an upcoming bio.

May December was written by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik, a film in which there is all-around strong acting to be seen; it revolves around the concept of discovering truth through strange situations (or even sickening ones) where people naturally hide their true selves. As we might expect from its setting in Savannah Georgia, this warmth is misleading because Elizabeth Berry (Portman) meets Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore) for the first time in a polite but standoffish conversation at one of Gracie’s private parties. Talking to someone who will portray you on-screen seems inappropriate. However, as soon as anyone realizes what was really happening – how big Elizabeth’s part was and what story had been told – “awkward” would be stretching it.

Gracie met Joe when she was thirty-something while he was only thirteen in spite of his wife being in her fifties in May December – the title is an old term for this sort of relationship involving one partner much older than another, contrasting youth’s spring with old age’s winter. They have settled well into married life now having three children – a daughter who has gone to college as well as fraternal twins (one boy and girl respectively), getting ready to graduate high school – but Gracie has never lived down or forgotten the stain of what she did and the time spent in prison for statutory rape. (This story will ring familiar to anyone who followed the case of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau in the 1990s.) The interviews with friends, neighbors, and relatives reviewed by Elizabeth reveal a larger series of events. But for Gracie, keeping her interactions with Elizabeth so secretive while allowing herself to be an open book for Hollywood’s it-girl, its true nature remains as thickly veiled as the hot Savannah air.

The only door into the past that the movie opens is through talking, magazine clippings, or places that are revisited by Elizabeth (such as that pet shop they were caught kissing in). Haynes has chosen not to use flashbacks therefore forcing “truth” itself to become fluid and flexible. There is no question about the facts – if May December had been a courtroom drama – but when viewed through cinema and performance those same facts are emotionally pliable from scene to scene.

The composition of Marcelo Zarvos has a sense of TV soap opera in it with repetitive, blaring piano notes that accompany scene transitions and slow zooms in and out of information in between verbose exchanges. May December is a film that wraps itself around you with its texture, largely due to the work of cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt who makes the never-ending sundown turn into an immutable spotlight by shooting golden-hour hues through swaying trees and canopies of leaves. It’s about Elizabeth’s potential to succeed if she lands this possibly Oscar-worthy part and the notoriety from which Gracie constantly tries to hide.

Enter Portman and Moore together on screen though, it produces something magical; for Haynes’ framing is nothing but overly explicit visual doubling transcending their roles through mirrors, screens, or stars. Through Portman’s increasingly noticeable (and noticeably caricatured) imitations of Moore’s voice and body language; this becomes clear through her increasingly exaggerated portrayal of Moore’s voice inflections as well as body movements. But what Elizabeth doesn’t see is the messy complicated nature behind closed doors “the truth” she is searching for being aired when Gracie’s hair-trigger temper and emotional fragility emerge. It has been nurtured by…well something. Guilt or regret or fear; whatever it might be called remains nameless since Gracie buries it so deeply within herself while Haynes treats it like a psychological puzzle even more than anything else.

This movie’s secret weapon lies in Melton’s portrayal of Joe: youth fighting middle age trapped in casual dadcore clothing that does not fit him quite right. He loves caterpillars – once they are grown up as monarch butterflies he releases them almost as if fulfilling some kind of wish – but still remains under Gracie’s domineering shadow at home beneath all that normalcy.

Haynes’ focus on characters’ self-perception versus how they want others to see them creates a live-wire tension that often turns into comedy, particularly when the insular bubbles they create out of their own egos can be easily burst by mere words and observations from some of the other characters. The film’s most awkwardly tender moments are found in Joe’s relationship with Gracie and their unpleasant past and its juxtaposition with the darkest humor about delayed adulthood and people who use Hollywood as a trampoline for their own entertainment at personal costs. These hidden wounds are scratched raw by Elizabeth’s persistent questioning and her presence in Joe and Gracie’s life. It’s an incredible tone poem performance all around, making it one of this year’s most deliciously uncomfortable films.

The verdict

It takes remarkable audacity on the part of any filmmaker to turn such a lurid tale of abuse into something so wildly entrancing and entertaining, but Todd Haynes’ mix of tenderness and camp is a perfect fit for May December. Each performance is fine-tuned for maximum effect; actors plunge towards the depths of these characters, yet each one remains protected by an elastic skin that keeps bouncing them back above water. The result is a melodramatic piece about sear.

Read May December Review on Fmovies

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