In Todd Haynes’ bitingly camp new film, two acting titans play manipulative women desperate to get what they want at any cost — all under the guise of polite respectability. It’s an intriguing approach that, initially, feels at odds with a serious plot that involves child sex abuse and long-fossilised trauma. Between spiky silences and lashings of droll humour, May December follows actor Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) as she researches a role and visits a couple, Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton), 24 years after they faced a scandal — and Gracie prison time — for their relationship, which began when Gracie was 36 and Joe was 13.
The trip is meant to be mutually beneficial: Elizabeth can study Gracie’s mannerisms and peek behind the curtain to add authenticity to her performance, while Gracie and Joe can try to curry favour in the hope Elizabeth will give them a sympathetic portrayal. Though they’ve spent the last two decades pretending that everything is peachy and that they have never been happier, the actor’s arrival, and habit of asking pointed questions, causes the couple to erupt like two shifting tectonic plates. Purring one moment and sneery the next, Portman plays Elizabeth as Machiavellian, arguably just as much of a mess as her subject; when the two women interact, their battle of competing hauteur powers the film’s strange, sizzling undercurrent of black comedy.
Melton is particularly impressive: his shrewd, small performance is the film’s emotional nucleus.
Haynes has already exhibited his flair for Douglas Sirk-style melodramas with Carol and Far From Heaven. Here, he keeps the structure but strips out the sumptuous colour and heady atmosphere found in his back catalogue, hewing to the antiseptic vibe of his 1995 hit Safe. With its showy piano score, comical zooms and outrageous, near-cringe dialogue (“You seduced me,” Gracie says to Joe, straight-faced), the entire thing teeters towards a telenovela. What elevates May December above an episode of The Real Housewives is Haynes’ careful balance of the film’s soapy elements with an icy core of sadness. Joe lives in Gracie’s shadow like an obedient, shell-shocked child, while Gracie is stuck in her own state of arrested development, garbed in frilly, pastel dresses and speaking with a breathy, lisping little-girl voice.
Not everything works, with some symbolism perhaps a little too blunt. But it’s the performances where May December shines, and opposite two acting powerhouses, Melton is particularly impressive: his shrewd, small performance is the film’s emotional nucleus, breaking us out of the salacious stylings and exposing us to the damage these two women — wolves in sheep’s clothing — are inflicting upon him.