May December and our obsession with scandal

The new film from Todd Haynes confronts us with the private reverberations of our appetite for celebrity scandal, says Ibrahim Azam, one of the critics on this year's LFF Critics Mentorship Programme.

May December (2023)

Since the advent of the tabloid, we’ve all become addicted to sensationalism. Scandals sell, especially when they concern our beloved celebrities. They scratch that itch of curiosity we all feel about famous lives. That’s why any misstep or outrageous blunder is scrutinised and magnified beyond proportion: we’re reminded that A-listers are fallible human beings like the rest of us.

Todd Haynes’ new romantic drama May December revolves around this very fascination. The film focuses on actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) who visits a married couple with a large age gap after she is cast as wife Gracie (Julianne Moore) in a biopic about their controversial past.

Grace is revealed to have had a sexual relationship with her husband Joe (Charles Melton) when she was in her thirties, and while he was an underage teen. After being caught, a tabloid frenzy ensued, and the couple became one of the most infamous in America.

Relayed by the occasional flashback and in honest, somewhat brutal dialogue, this fictitious event (very loosely based on a 1996 tabloid story about teacher Mary Lou Letourneau) is told from the perspectives of those directly impacted by the couple’s misconduct, including the husband and wife themselves, as well as their children, families and wider social circle. It’s a side of the story that, as consumers of scandal, we never usually explore or even pay attention to. We see the immediate fallout splashed across headlines, but the aftermath tends to remain unexplored.

Employing intimate, close-up cinematography that almost forces us to invade his characters’ privacy, Haynes’ film makes for intense viewing. With Portman’s flair for portraying a sultry enigma, and Moore’s nuanced grappling with a complex character with clouded reasoning, the star performances confront us with the flesh-and-blood realities behind our own fascination with the lives of celebrities.

Near the beginning, Elizabeth sees the couple receive a package in the mail. After handing the small box to Joe, Elizabeth watches as the couple deduces the box is full of excrement. It’s a brief moment, but tells us all we need to know and feel about how the public continue to view Gracie and Joe’s relationship – even many years after the scandal. Through Elizabeth’s conversations with the pair and her investigations into their backstory, May December begins to demonstrate how dangerous obsessing over scandal can be and how much it can damage those in the line of fire.

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in May December (2023)
Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in May December (2023)

Joe and Gracie have a complicated marriage, to say the least. There is love, undeniably. But there is also a hidden layer of guilt, confusion and the remnants of immoral decisions and behaviour that led to their affair in the first place. Gracie continues to practically groom, guilt-trip and almost beg Joe to stay in love with her, while Elizabeth’s involvement in their relationship brings its true, illicit nature to light. Initially, they seem a strong couple, but as May December progresses the uglier truth rears its head.

Haynes creates this character development to further flesh them out. We empathise with Joe, a boy who was robbed of his innocence and prevented from actually growing up. He was coerced into a relationship to the point where even he thought it was right for him. It’s only Elizabeth’s presence that leads Joe to this realisation, making it obvious to us how vulnerable he really is.

In real-life instances of tabloid scandal, we often lose sight of such personal reverberations. In 2012, photographs of Kristen Stewart embracing and kissing her director Rupert Sanders were published in the magazine US Weekly. At the time, Stewart was appearing in Sanders’ fantasy film Snow White and the Huntsman. Sanders was married to model Liberty Ross, while Stewart was in a public relationship with Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson and had been since 2009.

Once the photographs were revealed, a substantial media backlash followed. The public became obsessed with the affair and the intertwined lives of these three famous people. What wasn’t considered was the devastating impact the affair had on Sanders’ wife and their two children. Immediately after, Ross filed for divorce and sought joint custody. This marked the dissolution of a marriage and the end of a family. It also augured the conclusion of Stewart’s relationship with Pattinson; after a brief reconciliation, the couple ended their relationship in 2013.

The split from Pattinson and public perception sent Stewart on a downward spiral that involved what she described as “a really traumatic period” in an interview with Marie Claire magazine. She went on to describe the significance of the public obsession she was subject to as a result: “the public kind of burned me at the stake”.

In Haynes’ film, the fictionalisation of this kind of tabloid scandal prompts us to reflect on the damage being done by our own unhealthy infatuation with such notoriety. For those familiar with the director’s work, this confrontation with difficult material should come as no surprise. From Poison (1992) via Velvet Goldmine (1998) to Carol (2015), he’s always had a flair for provocative and subversive narratives, especially those that don’t shy away from eroticism. In May December, Gracie, Joe and Elizabeth disrupt the social norms around them through an unconventional sexuality omnipresent in the film. Haynes uses the theme to draw us in, expose us to the realities of such an affair, and leave us haunted by its impact.

As the film reaches its climax, it’s clear that Portman’s character has become so fascinated by her research subject that she has begun to imitate her, almost automatically, to ensure her portrayal would start to feel real. The lines become blurred, and it’s clear that in Elizabeth’s fascination with Gracie, she’s become representative of our own unhealthy obsession, ignoring the damage Gracie had caused to an innocent man and the family around her.

Exploring the more unsavoury aspects of human behaviour with creativity, honesty and finesse, it’s in such moments that Haynes’ film disquietingly holds a mirror back at us.

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