May December (2023)
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Samy Burch
Starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, D.W Moffett, Piper Curda
Release Date November 17th, 2023
Published November 15th, 2023
A few days ago I watched David Fincher's new movie The Killer and I was left wondering if that film was intended to be a comedy. Not a traditional comedy mind you, rather a David Fincher comedy. A David Fincher comedy finds humor in a way that is far from typical comedy. It's a humor that either you get it or you don't and the filmmaker doesn't particularly care whether you understand the joke or not. It's a puzzling movie, to say the least. Now, I find myself watching another movie by another famously particular auteur and having the same question: Is this comedy?
Todd Haynes' new movie, May December, starring Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman tells a story that would not, on the surface, seem appealing to Haynes' particular style of filmmaking. The film tells the story of an actress, played by Portman, who travels to Savannah, Georgia to meet the real life woman that she is set to play in a new movie. That woman is played by Julianne Moore and some 30 odd years earlier, she went to prison after she had an affair and a baby with a 13 year old boy, played as a grown up by Harry Melton.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you probably grew up in the 1990s and you recall the story of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher who was caught having sex with a 13 year old student named Vili Fualaau. She was arrested and convicted of statutory rape. She became pregnant before heading to prison and went on to marry her much younger baby daddy when she was in her mid-30s and he was only 18 years old. The couple stayed together for over 20 some years before ending their marriage just before Letourneau passed away in 2020.
That kind of trashy, tabloid story would not appear to suit the man who made such elegant movies as Carol and Far From Heaven. That said, both of those movies are about tearing away the blinders that many choose to wear regarding the America of the 1950s and 60s to reveal the trashy, ugly, and awful core that many Baby Boomers, and their parents, would like to forget. In this case, Haynes applies his talents to a story from the 1990s and he's pulling back the veil on a story we'd all put behind us and tried to ignore. We'd all made up our minds about Letourneau and her teenage victim, she was the older person in the relationship and bore responsibility for it.
Haynes doesn't try to change or complicate our memory but he does appear to add some texture and nuance to it. While we laughed at late night jokes at the expense of Letourneau in the 1990s there was a real person there and she did go on to marry her victim. What was that about? Is this a love story? Or is it something more sinister, a case of grooming that was so pervasive in the public mind that we collectively tried to ignore the fact that it didn't actually end when Letourneau went to prison. The story continued, she married her victim, they had more children and we all turned away to search for the next big scandal.
Haynes forces us back to this moment and uses the film form to critique the way we consume the pain, heartache and tragedy of real people. Real victims and their abusers. Natalie Portman's actress character, Elizabeth Berry is simply researching a role and this fact comments on the artificial nature of storytelling and real life. The movie is about shaping a narrative, it's about the ways reality is manipulated by the people telling the story. In Elizabeth's eyes, this is the story of an odd woman who took advantage of a much younger man. That's not how Moore's Gracie sees it. She even goes as far as to claim that the 13 year old boy seduced her into their relationship.
Caught in the midst of these competing narratives is Joe (Harry Melton), who has spent most of his life in denial about his relationship with Gracie. Whether she convinced him or he convinced himself that this was the life that he wanted, it seems clear that Joe has never really had a life outside of Gracie. His emotional growth is stunted for a man who has three children. In a telling scene, he has an emotional reaction to smoking marijuana for the first time alongside his teenage son. His emotional reaction is the catalyst for him to make some big choices and to confront Gracie about the origin of their relationship in a powerhouse scene.
So where does the comedy come in? Well, much like in The Killer, the comedy is not typical. It comes from the odd angles that Haynes comes at telling this story. A particularly dark and strange bit of humor comes in a conversation between Portman and her film director over the phone. In the conversation, Portman's Elizabeth claims that none of the 13 year old boys that are auditioning to be her onscreen love interest are 'sexy enough.' The casual way she approaches this topic is jarring and darkly comic because it is so the wrong way to look at a literal child, regardless of the context. At once it is a clueless Hollywood weirdo comment and, if you step back, it's an indictment of anyone who looks at this story through the lens of entertainment.
The film briefly mentions that Gracie and Joe's story has already been turned into a movie but it was a cheesy, Lifetime style, cheapie, intended to cash in on the tabloid scandal. This movie is set to be a prestige feature and a shift to meaty, dramatic feature film roles for Elizabeth who is currently best known for a TV drama of unspecified premise. See how dehumanizing that is when you look at it from the perspective of Hollywood and popular culture? That's the dark joke of May December, it's a joke on all of us that we willingly buy stories like this, treat them like commodities, and generally consume these stories like entertainment news and gossip while losing sight of the actual human beings.
Haynes is pointing a finger at us, at Hollywood, at society in general and as that fact dawns on you, you can't help but smile and laugh at the discomfort of knowing and understanding how right he is. This is, in many ways, our fault. While many will shift blame to the media for feeding our frenzy for these kinds of scandals, we still buy the tabloids, watch the tabloid news shows, and watch the TV movies. We consume these scandals like we consume entertainment and it's dehumanizing and wrong in so many ways. Haynes with May December turns the mirror back on us for taking the humanity out of these stories.
Now, this does not mean that Haynes is letting his characters off of the hook. Gracie may be a victim of our dehumanizing culture but she's also a woman who, whether she will admit it or not, groomed a 13 year old boy into becoming her sex partner and, eventually, her husband. She can try to play the victim but the movie is not letting her off the hook. Everyone in May December has a role to play in dehumanizing this story and it's all really gross but also very effective. No one gets away clean, even us, from the messy, nasty, and darkly comic story of May December.
Back to the darkly comic heart of May December, Todd Haynes also delivers comedy via his music score. Marcelo Zarvos handled the music for May December and the overwrought, almost horror movie style, strings he employs to punctuate otherwise mundane scenes are a further indictment of how we can and do make anything into a big dramatic moment with the right music cue. Early on in the movie, Julianne Moore's Gracie goes to her refrigerator, shortly after her husband was there. As she surveys the fridge a dramatic movie score cue comes in. You assume that he's put something in the fridge that he shouldn't have. Perhaps he's accidentally revealed a secret of some kind. Nope! She's worried that they don't have enough hot dogs for the cookout they are throwing.
It's a brilliant deconstruction of the artifice of filmed entertainment. It's a naked manipulation of the audience, creating drama where no real drama exists. Artifice is used to turn a lack of enough hot dogs into a drama worthy of Kane traipsing the crumbling halls of Xanadu alone or Scarlett O'Hara declaring she won't go hungry again. This score will rise a couple more times in May December with similar effect and it's quite an effective bit of meta humor. It's not exactly laugh out loud funny, but is unquestionably amusing. It's an ingenious deconstruction of film form and the nature of how narratives in entertainment are manipulated and engineered.
I think May December is some of the best work of Haynes' career. I was resisting the movie while I watched it, quite uncomfortable about the subject matter, kind of put off by the idea that Todd Haynes, of all directors, was taking such a tawdry story and telling it in such a straight forward and dramatic fashion. It wasn't until I watched it for a second time that the movie became clear to me. Haynes is absolutely messing with us. He is masterfully placing us in the position to feel our own complicity in this story and stories like it. He's pointedly accusing us and by extension, popular culture of willfully dehumanizing people for our own sick entertainment. And he's not wrong. Not at all. He's also teaching a master class in how to make a film that deconstructs film form while still telling a compelling story full of complex characters.
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