In May December, Todd Haynes suggests there may be worse things than being a convicted sex offender. One could, for instance, be a TV actor prepping for a starring role in a movie. The film derives its inspiration from the story of American teacher, Mary Katherine Schmitz, who in 1997, at the age of 34, embarked on an affair with a 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau. This may sound like a promising enough subject, but it’s merely the starting point for a tale of sinuous psychological complexity.
Julieanne Moore is the Schmitz character, but now her name is Gracie. It’s more than twenty years since she was convicted of statutory rape of a minor. She and Joe, the youthful object of her affections, have been married a long time. They live in a big house in Savannah, Georgia, and have three children, one at college, the other two ready to go. Fualaau was of Samoan descent, but Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), is from a Korean family.
Into their lives comes actor, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), famous for her role in a TV serial, but longing to do something more challenging, more worthy of her talents. She feigns embarrassment when people say how much they love her program, suggesting she’d be happier if no-one watched it. Like most actors, Elizabeth also acts in her everyday life, doing a nice line in false modesty.
The role she sees as her big break is to play Gracie in a dramatised indie version of the love affair that sent her to prison. After 20 years of domestic seclusion, Gracie and her family are fearful of this dubious bio pic, but Elizabeth has come to Savannah to reassure them it will be a sensitive treatment, and to study the real people behind the story. One wonders why they show her such hospitality. Perhaps they’ve decided that it’s better to co-operate and hope for a positive outcome.
Gracie is charming and friendly – at first. Joe works as an X-ray technician but spends much of his free time cultivating Monarch butterflies. This allows for a good deal of symbolism, prompting us to see Joe as a caterpillar who has never been allowed to find his wings. There may be nothing grub-like about handsome, strapping Charles Melton, but he remains a man-child in this marriage, never sure of his status as a grown-up. I couldn’t help thinking that a similar age difference with his wife never hampered Emmanuel Macron’s progress.
As Elizabeth makes her way around Savannah, meeting Gracie’s former lawyer, her ex-husband, and Georgie, her troubled son from that first marriage, the tensions gradually increase. Gracie wants to control this narrative, painting a self-portrait as a homey, middle-aged wife and mother, with lots of close friends, and a little business, baking cakes. Every interview throws up stories that undermine this image, but the two women keep smiling at one another.
We need to watch the body language, or the occasional sharp reply, as when Elizabeth recalls how she told her parents she wanted to be on Broadway, and they replied: “Honey, you’re so much smarter than that.” Gracie asks: “Are you smarter than that?”, exposing the boast behind the self-deprecating façade.
More than once, we see the two women standing side-by-sde looking into a mirror, with the camera positioned on the other side of the glass. Shades of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona? There’s another scene in which they face each other in profile, drawing out the relationship between the actor and her subject, as Elizabeth tries to absorb Gracie’s looks, manner, and way of thinking. At the same time, Gracie is analysing her unwanted doppelganger, working out what makes her tick.
We slowly begin to see that Elizabeth’s cool persona conceals a narcissism that views everyone else as a means to an end, most especially Joe. In trying to imagine Gracie’s passion for him, as method actor might, she becomes powerfully attracted, but it’s also part of an unspoken battle for supremacy with the woman she is studying. In another scene she talks with a group of high-school students, dwelling too long on a facetious question about sex scenes, creating an unsettling atmosphere.
If our sympathies are with Elizabeth at the beginning of the film as she tries to crack Gracie’s mask of forced positivity, by the end we’ve learned to mistrust her motivations. The final scene, which acts as coda to the main story, confirms our worst suspicions.
Among contemporary directors, Haynes is the most subtle of psychologists, a crafter of characters motivated by veins of insecurity or sexual obsession. It takes time for us to fully understand his protagonists, as we learn what lies beneath their carefully constructed personalities. There are elements of social masquerade, but these figures are mainly convincing themselves about who they are. Elizabeth, Gracie and Joe are each caught up in this game, with different degrees of confidence. While Gracie is almost paranoid in her desire to manipulate the way she is seen and judged, Joe is groping in the dark to understand his own feelings as husband and father, worrying he may have closed down his own life before it had properly begun.
Haynes’s attention to detail is obvious in every scene, every piece of dialogue, and even in the score – a piano adaptation by Marcelo Zarvos of Michel Legrande’s score for The Go-Between (1971) – a reference that opens up another train of associations.
In the course of Elizabeth’s conversations, when a speaker is asked to recall what someone was like, the standard answer is “she was beautiful”. Nothing gets beyond surface impressions in which appearance is taken for reality, and deviations from the norm are viewed as shocking and incomprehensible.
In stirring the ostensibly placid surface of Gracie and Joe’s family life, Elizabeth raises all the spectres of the past they had tried to put behind them. She promises a sympathetic portrayal, but she views everyone as characters in a story rather than beings of flesh and blood. She says she’s attracted to “the complexity of the grey areas” in portraying another person, but Gracie and Joe would prefer to forget those areas existed. In this tale everyone is acting. A play within a play, a cinematic hall of mirrors, it creates great roles for Portman, Moore and Melton, who put in impressive performances.
With the shortlists for the 2024 Academy Awards just announced, May December stands out as the most cruelly undervalued film of the year, receiving a single nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It seems the ambiguities of this intelligent production asked too many questions of an Academy which nowadays prefers to view of the world in terms of simplistic political pieties.
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Samy Burch & Alex Mechanik
Starring: Julieanne Moore, Natalie Portman, Charles Melton, Cory Michael Smith, Elizabeth Yu, Gabriel Chung, Piper Curda, D.W. Moffett, Lawrence Arancio
USA, MA 15+, 117 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 3 February, 2024