Todd Haynes’s May December isn’t, ultimately, the movie you might think it is at first blush — hardly a surprise if you’ve been paying attention to the Haynesian project, which began over 35 years ago with the original meta-nipple twist on the iconicity of Barbie. (That’d be 1987’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, crummy copies of which, though outlawed due to a copyright infringement suit brought by Karen’s brother Richard, can still be found on YouTube.) Haynes’s default juke, sometimes so subtly played you can miss it, is an earnest engagement with genre — often, old-fashioned women’s melodrama — while simultaneously sprinkling sand in its gears, so its malfunctioning becomes a cool-eyed critique of genre presumptions. The experimental bonfires of Poison (1991), Safe (1995), and I’m Not There (2007) were easily scanned this way, while Far from Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015) were convincing enough narratively to be taken at face value, their questioning of melodramatic mechanisms secreted within true-hearted histrionics.
May December is somewhere in the middle — a contemplation of women’s stories that short-circuits our urge for empathic connection with mystery and ironic distance. Typically for Haynes, the movie is full of sly slippages, misleading genre gestures, moments of grave angst you’re not sure aren’t supposed to be funny, and an obsessive interest in the interiority of these women’s lives — which remains unknowable. The original script, by Samy Burch, is a contemporary riff on the tale of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher and mother who in the ’90s was caught having a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old student (whom she married, after prison, nine years later). Haynes and Burch kindly upped the minor’s age to 13; when we meet the couple, Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) have been married for decades, with three children — one in college, two graduating high school.
Rich stuff, and already the source, as you’d expect, of several cheap TV movies. Haynes and Burch add an inspired layer of skullduggery — we follow Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a perhaps untrustworthy TV actress who’s researching an indie-film role based on Gracie, embedded somewhat tensely into the family unit (they live in a rather posh, lakeside Savannah suburb) and delicately probing them for what on earth could’ve motivated a middle-aged woman to do such a thing to begin with.
The film is filthy with details and deflected moments of suppressed drama, and in fact is far more interested in raising questions (as in, exactly what kind of crazy mom Gracie has been to the resulting children) than in answering them. You might assume that Portman’s prowling interloper is our eyes and ears into discovering the weird kernel of truth at the heart of Gracie and Joe’s past, but you’d be wrong, as we can sense early on when we see Elizabeth vamp up a narcissistic love scene all by herself in the pet-store stockroom where the illicit liaison reportedly took place, long ago. A little later, Elizabeth visits Gracie’s daughter’s high school drama class and answers a snarky student’s poke about sex scenes with a first-hand, seductively cringey dissertation on the subject, which she says is both fake and real at the same time. Like her? Elizabeth is the movie’s real subject — a stunning but creepy showbiz vampire (and maybe not a very good actress) privately determined to solve the psychological puzzle of Gracie by any means necessary. Elizabeth solves nothing, of course — as if people’s lives, even Letourneau’s, can be explicated like a crossword theme, or properly turned into a neat written-for-the-screen story. A natural secret keeper and, when required, a deft channeler of Moore’s mannerisms and pitch, Portman of course kills in the role.
Always second-guessing himself, Haynes may have gone too far, too cold, in making sure the film he made is not the film Elizabeth was thinking of making — which we get a glimpse of in the end. Perhaps the headiest clue to Haynes’s conscientious ironizing is the thunderous soundtrack, which sometimes ka-booms at inappropriate moments (someone opening a fridge), and which is adapted from Michel Legrand’s score for Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971), another tale of a clandestine affair and a clueless 13-year-old. Every orchestral surge plays as both a sob and a wink. Often the movie feels like one big furrowed brow — there are lengthy passages of both women viewed full-frontally, staring into the camera as if it were a mirror, conversing but exposing very little, considered by Haynes’s camera as though they were sphinxes, enigmas to each other and to us.
Helplessly, May December dies a little when focused on Melton, whose dullness and passivity as an actor might’ve been seen as a reflection of the character’s arrested development. But Haynes has always been less interested in his men than his women, whom he showers with auteurist reverence. (It’s his fifth film with Moore.) Embracing the ambiguity of others’ lives à la the faceless reporter giving up on “Rosebud,” in Citizen Kane, Haynes naturally then avoids digging into the compelling matter of the Letourneau story — which, sorry, remains an uncracked nut. Early in the film Elizabeth eyeballs a few video auditions of real 13-year-olds for the role in her movie, and the boys’ terrifyingly unformed youth is all we need to see to shake us out of the built-in distractionism of Haynes’s style. How did it happen? ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.