An actress studies a woman who was the subject of a scandal involving sex with an underage person, in order to play her in a movie.
It’s hard to believe that American director Todd Haynes has been making films for over 35 years now—I still think of him as a daring new voice in movies, which I guess is an indicator of my age. He was part of the burgeoning New Queer cinema, as it was called, in the 1980s and ‘90s, when openly gay filmmakers started to break into public awareness with a degree of success. Gay and gender issues have been important themes in a lot of Haynes’s movies, although not all of them.
Another is his fascination with classic film genres. Far from Heaven, from 2002, adapted some of the elements of 1950s Hollywood romantic melodrama, particularly the films of Douglas Sirk, but then added race and gay sexuality into the mix so that this old-fashioned style was depicting modern issues that no one would touch in the ‘50s. There’s a similar idea with the film Carol, from 2015, with Cate Blanchett in the title role, as a closeted lesbian, also in the ‘50s. There are other examples. But Haynes’s involvement with classic style is not just a way to make ironic connections to our current issues. It’s an orientation in itself, an interrogation, if you will, of film narrative.
Which brings me to his latest picture, May December. Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth, a well-known actress scheduled to star in a film about a sensational tabloid type case from twenty years earlier. A woman in her 30s was arrested for statutory rape with a 7th grader. She went to prison, had a child behind bars, and was eventually released, upon which she and the young man, named Joe, now an adult, got married. Elizabeth has asked this woman, Gracie, played by Julianne Moore, to allow her to live with her for a while, studying her before playing her in the movie. Gracie is assured that it will be a respectful treatment of the story.
From this perspective, that of an actress planning a performance, we get to know Gracie and her family, including children from a previous marriage that broke up after the scandal. And we meet Joe, who is now 36, and seemingly leads a happy life with Gracie and their kids.
The bold cinematography, camera movement, and suspense-style editing reminds me of Hitchcock, and then there’s the intense music, which practically shouts “This is a thriller!” But Haynes is actually interested in a completely different subject, and it takes some time to notice this at first. At this point I’ll just say that if you are determined to enjoy a mystery thriller or suspense film, the kind we’re generally used to, May December will disappoint you. In fact, Todd Haynes has used this genre to lead the audience astray. And why, you ask, would he do that? Because the misdirection, which is there even in the movie’s title, is an essential part of the film’s meaning.
In many stories, there are witnesses who act as point of view characters through which the narrative is told. They could be just a person for us to identify with through whatever’s happening in the story. We tend to take these kinds of characters for granted. In this film, it’s Elizabeth, the actress played by Natalie Portman. Portman’s performance is more than incidental—it’s central. In May December, acting becomes a metaphor for how people live, an uncomfortable secret about the way we behave with one another. Crucially, as Haynes shows us, it’s usually a secret even to ourselves.