In years to come – and maybe only months from now – audiences will dress up in floral-print dresses, bust our tear-stained pies, and go to cinemas to yell cherished lines of dialogue during screenings of May December.
Todd Haynes’ best film since Far from Heaven is an instant camp classic jollied along by the kicking subversion of Safe and the wicked humour of Superstar.
The deliciously dark script by Samy Burch was loosely inspired by the decades of tabloid headlines scared up by Mary Kay Letourneau, the American teacher who was jailed in 1987 for having sex with a student. He was 12 years old. Both parties always claimed that the relationship was consensual. They continued their relationship while she was serving her sentence. She became pregnant twice during that time. After her release, they remained married until 2019.
May December casts Julianne Moore as a Letourneau substitute named Gracie, the mother of three grown-up children with her husband, Joe (a revelatory Charles Melton). As the title suggests, the relationship is defined by a gaping age gap: she first seduced Joe while they were working in a pet shop; she was 36 and he was 13. Or, as Gracie insists in one of her many foot-stomping tantrums: “You seduced me!”
An opening gambit, in which Moore peers into her fridge and notes a lack of hot dogs, with a crash zoom and dramatic musical sting, telegraphs the telenovela tone to come.
The poignant lack of hot dogs coincides with the arrival of Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, a famous actor, who has come to stay with the family to prepare for her role as Gracie in a trashy upcoming movie. Gracie’s predatory, manipulative skill set – replete with a practised childish lisp – is soon matched by her would-be portrayer. “We’re basically the same,” Elizabeth prophetically tells Gracie during their first meeting. Sure enough, after some platitudes about performance and identity, Elizabeth’s visit to a local school theatre group proves the peak toe-curling event of 2023.
These rousingly ghastly people are animated by a duo of committed and escalating performances. Joe, a man-child unable to answer Elizabeth’s questions, is a study of arrested development and denied trauma. He is the human-interest story tacked on to the sensationalism.
From Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography to Marcelo Zarvos’s music, there is a playfulness that apes the “cute-couple” normalcy of Joe and Gracie’s marriage. The hilarious histrionics similarly mask the paedophilia, gaslighting and self-justifications. Haynes cleverly stages a soap opera only to ask: you are enjoying this, but should you be?
May December is in cinemas from Friday, November 17th