Todd Haynes’s “May December” Examines the Shadows Behind Picture-Perfect Lives

In Todd Haynes’s latest film, Natalie Portman portrays an actress studying the real-life inspiration for her character, played by Julianne Moore, a woman with a sensational tabloid history. Set against the backdrop of a picturesque home, a familiar setting for tales of American dreams turned nightmares, the film bathes its scenes in dappled, hazy light, blurring harsh lines and brightening faces. Despite the inviting aesthetic, Haynes masterfully weaves an unnerving and sly narrative in this shimmering Gothic, where appearances deceive and an underlying queasiness pervades the seemingly idyllic atmosphere.

“May December” unfolds the complex narrative of two women enmeshed in webs of deceit. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a TV actress, encounters Gracie (Julianne Moore), her character’s real-life inspiration, during a visit. Gracie, residing in a spacious Savannah waterfront house with her husband Joe (Charles Melton) and their family, becomes the focal point of Elizabeth’s exploration into a tangled history. The revelation of a disturbing package at their doorstep hints at the darkness concealed beneath the façade of a seemingly perfect life.

Drawing inspiration from real-life events involving Mary Kay Letourneau, the film delves into the disturbing tabloid episode of Gracie and Joe. As Elizabeth embarks on a quest for truth, scanning tabloids and interviewing family and friends, the narrative unveils layers of complexity. Gracie’s rationalization of her relationship with Joe challenges societal norms, and Haynes employs narrative dexterity and shocks of humor to navigate this dark tale.

“May December” maintains Haynes’s signature approach, blending genre conventions and toying with audience expectations. The film, written by Samy Burch, echoes the essence of a classic woman’s picture, with a focus on domestic spaces, moral quandaries, and political dimensions. Haynes utilizes beautiful imagery, evocative music, and floods of emotion to create the allure of a well-told narrative while simultaneously deconstructing it. The result is a labyrinthine hall of mirrors that captivates and challenges the viewer.

Moore and Portman deliver synchronized performances, infusing the film with an unsettling yet comedic atmosphere. Elizabeth’s character, played by Portman, exhibits a studied agreeability that hides a brittle affect, contrasting with Gracie’s melodramatically rich performance, brought to life by Moore’s eerie calm and histrionic prowess. As the focus gradually shifts to Joe, portrayed by Charles Melton, the story takes a somber turn, delving into profound emotional depths.

“May December” navigates moral crises, mysteries, and societal expectations with finesse, crafting a narrative that questions the cost of roles people play in their pursuit of the American dream. Melton’s anguished portrayal adds emotional power, while subtle metaphors, like the Monarch butterflies, infuse the film with delicate symbolism. Haynes masterfully exposes the dichotomy between perceived reality and hidden truths, making “May December” a compelling exploration of deception and societal illusions.