May December — Unsettling Unforgettable

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Category Culture, Lifestyle, Town
Date January 5 2024
Reading Time 4 min.

May December — Unsettling Unforgettable

May December is the new domestic melodrama by Todd Haynes. Incredibly funny and at the same time deeply unsettling, the film follows a story of a controversial couple and an ambitious actress set to play one of them in an upcoming Hollywood biopic. In this sly psychological picture Hayes explores the depths of human mind, victimhood and the all-consuming cynicism of Hollywood opportunism when it comes to the stories of real people.

The film premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival, where it was also nominated for the Best Screenplay category. Since then May December has received widespread acclaim from critics. With a rating of 93%  on Rotten Tomatoes, the film can easily be called one of the best ones to come out this year. Although it is definitely not the only picture to touch on the subjects of trauma and psych, the unsettling wittiness at which May December brings these topics to screen make it hard to forget, haunting its viewers with its eerily grey moral.

Loosely inspired by the infamous case of a state-school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who had an affair with her 12 year-old student, the film focuses on the aftermath of the incident that occurred twenty years prior to the main events. Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julian Moore) and her husband Joe (Charles Melton) are now leading a normal family life in Savannah, Georgia: they have three beautiful children, a nice house and friendly neighbours. Joe works as a surgeon, Gracie bakes pies, and their younger kids are about to graduate high school. 

Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a famous actress who is cast to play Gracie in the upcoming film set years ago, when the romance between the 36 year old married Gracie and the 12 year old Joe  has first been discovered, shocking the nation to the core and resulting in the country-wide tabloid attention. As the film progresses, the image of a kind and cheerful Gracie slowly fades, revealing a manipulative and controlling matriarch. However, fascinated with Gracies eerie naivety that contrasts her actions, Elizabeth slowly becomes obsessed with playing Gracie the way she is, trying to penetrate the womans mind through their frequent and virtually uncomfortable interactions.

Elizabeths method acting doesnt stop at just imitating Gracies style by wearing similar clothes, hairdo and using the exact same makeup, she also picks up on Gracies mimics, going as far as repeating her childlike lisp that only comes out when Gracie is forced out of her balance. Elizabeth talks to Gracie about the latters childhood and learns her signature baking recipes.

In the final act of becoming Gracie, Elizabeth seduces her husband, Joe, after he gives her a letter of Gracies confession of love. When Joe untimely realises that for Elizabeth his sudden outburst of passion is just a part of cold-headed research and he accuses her of using him, the actress simply responds: Thats what adults do.Affected by his interaction with Elizabeth, Joe finally breaks and tries to talk about their weird relationship with Gracie, who brushes him off like a little boy.

As disturbing as the film is, flitting between themes of sexual trauma and domestic violence to manipulation and self-centredness, it nevertheless allows for a level of layering that hasn’t been seen in Hollywood in years. Julian Moores Gracie is naive to her core and her naivety, which only deepens as the plot progresses, shields her from the shame and regret of her actions.

In fact, it seems that even in the finale she is still unable to grasp how questionable her relationship with Joe is. Such tendency flows in all her other relationships as well. Although it has hard to watch, the viewer is simply captivated by how brilliantly Moore executes the role of a deeply messed up woman unable to realise how many lives, including the ones of her children from both marriages, she has ruined and continues to do so by disregarding any adult responsibility that comes with being able to make decisions.

When the viewer occasionally gets a glimpse of her life through the eyes of Gracie, it becomes clear that she sees her self solely as a victim. A victim of older men, who molested her at 12, a victim of love with Joe and a victim of the societal norms that she could never be a part of.

The complicated relationship between childhood and adulthood is also conveyed with a traumatising brilliancy by Haynes. It strikes especially when paralleling Joes relationship with his father na with his son. When smoking a cigarette with his father, Joe lights and holds it like someone, who has never smoked before. When doing so, Joe looks at his father as if trying to find out if he is allowed to smoke. Later, when his son smokes in front of him, his sons movements with a cigarette are executed with such certainty that they leave no doubt that he has done it before and he does not require his fathers approval.

Charles Melton portrays Joe, an attractive but childlike man who is seemingly still shellshocked by everything that has happened to him, in such powerfully awkward manner that it is difficult to really separate the child-Joe that we never really see and the adult one. It is because they are inseparable, which the actor has understood so well. Joe, who was never able to grow up like a normal teenager, is frequently described as someone, who had to grow up too early. The tragedy, that Haynes so masterfully hides behind Elizabeths wittiness in conversations with the weirdly unsocialised Joe and Gracie, is that neither husband nor wife were actually able to grow up and are now stuck together as two 12 year old in adult bodies.

Elizabeth, who turns out to be the only real grown-up when interacting with the couple this way, represents the cynicism of the adult world as a whole and the cynicism of Hollywood in particular. The story of Gracie, who is revealed to be a deeply insecure and traumatised woman, is only a tool for Elizabeth to further her career. An opportunity to make a film about someone, as controversial and as conventionally evil as a woman who molested a teenage boy and never admitted the blame for it, is the one Hollywood, which is notoriously sensation-thirsty, would never pass on. With this in mind, Haynes makes a film inside a film that studies the phenomenon of the real woman Gracie is based on and the phenomenon of making a film about her.

The feelings of uneasiness that stays with the viewer throughout the duration of the film does not suddenly let go once it is finished. It continues to linger somewhere in the back of the viewers mind, making him wonder: who was the victim and who was the offender?