May December: Todd Haynes’s dark comedy explores the thin line between truth and self-delusion

Julianne Moore is unnerving as Gracie, a housewife whose scandalous past is being probed by Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a young actress set to play her in a movie.

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in May December (2023)
Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in May December (2023)
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival

Todd Haynes knows how to write complicated women. Ever since Julianne Moore stepped into the role of a housewife suffering from a mysterious quasi-psychosomatic illness in Haynes’s environmental thriller Safe (1995), his films have featured a number of heroines who are hard to fathom, yet infinitely fascinating. In Haynes’s dark comedy, May December (2023), Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a former pet-store worker whose affair with an adolescent boy, Joe, created a media frenzy in her middle-class community in Savannah, Georgia.

The story begins more than two decades after the scandal, as an indie film is to be made about Gracie and Joe, who’s now 36. The key events are quickly established by Haynes, either by including images of tabloid front-pages, or Gracie’s own telling – we discover the two dutifully married and Gracie had Joe’s baby in prison. The couple enjoy an ordinary life of barbecues and pool parties, children and even grandchildren (from Gracie’s previous marriage), although Gracie’s baking home-business turns out to be largely financed by a few loyal friends who take pity on her. Meanwhile Gracie certainly remains ostracised by some, including enduring swipes about her promiscuity by colleagues at a local charity where she helps out.

Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, the actress who’s to portray the younger Gracie. Elizabeth arrives at Gracie’s family home to shadow her in her daily chores, to observe and later imitate her subject’s gestures, but also, increasingly, to probe the murkier depths of her affair and psyche – which turns out to be near impossible. Here lies the plot’s central paradox: played by Moore as mostly unfazed, though at times unexpectedly inconsolable, Gracie isn’t actually looking to be redeemed. The more Elizabeth snoops around, interviewing Gracie’s loved ones, such as her ex-husband and children, and the more she insists that Gracie acknowledge the permanent damage that the affair caused to her family, the more Gracie rebuffs any notion that her love for Joe can be somehow wrong.

Haynes bathes the film’s images in the softly puddled southern light, stressing the bonheur of the couple’s life. In the hands of the veteran cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt – also behind Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Certain Women (2016) and First Cow (2019) – it is as if the fierce light has vaporised hard objects and rougher, nuanced textures, rendering them translucent. In such a world, there appears to be nothing to hide. And yet, Gracie’s persona slowly cracks under Elizabeth’s encroachments. Her snap comments to her daughters about their weight reveal how deeply she has internalised the chauvinist attitudes passed down to her by her own mother. In fact, her motherly permissiveness – though perhaps also micro-managing – of Joe contrasts upsettingly with her harsher attitude towards her children.

As the baby-faced, delicate Joe, Charles Melton infuses the story with a welcome forthrightness that’s the opposite of Gracie and Elizabeth’s infinite cat-and-mouse dance. Where, despite professing good intentions, Elizabeth is ruthless in her ambition to break out in a new role, to the point of predating on Gracie and everyone in her household. Meanwhile, Gracie’s so addicted to the single version of the events that paint Joe as her equal – no matter at what age – that she never gets past all the smoke and mirrors. Unlike them, Joe appears to be on a real quest for a deeper personal truth. Even if, in the end, such reckoning cannot be fully gleaned from the fractured, conflicting versions of his life. Haynes’s film shines brightest in moments of such genuine anguish and ambiguity, which clash, rather tragically, with Gracie’s obdurate clinging to her persona.

Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) observes her subject Gracie (Julianne Moore) in May December (2023)
Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) observes her subject Gracie (Julianne Moore) in May December (2023)Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival 2023

Fiction and fact, self-delusion and self-truth are given a dangerous edge in Haynes’s film, which, ultimately, isn’t so much about Gracie’s actions as it is about society’s appetite for demonstrations of compunction, even where none is felt. If society demands its martyrs, Gracie both dazzles and irritates by refusing to be one. With the choice of one fair, blonde actress, and another as a feistier brunette, Haynes invites comparisons to Bergman’s Persona (1966). But whereas there’s certainly a parasitic power play between the two women, in its edgy and satirical tone, the film’s more akin to Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995). It convincingly shows how a woman can be both prey to vicious societal impositions and wholesale fairytales of marital life, and in profound denial about her own predatory behaviour. The lines of what is truly moral are constantly crossed in May December, a film that resolutely prods media – and cinema’s – complicity in feeding the machinery of lies.