“Insecure people are dangerous,” says Julianne Moore’s character in this movie. She should know. Todd Haynes has come to Cannes with this amusing and elegant drama, Highsmithian in its intimacy and malice; a darker shade of Haynes’s Carol, maybe? It’s an unacknowledged duel between two women, played by Moore and Natalie Portman, who have found a potent frenmity at an important stage in each of their lives. Periodically Haynes will present us their faces side-by-side in closeup as they gaze at themselves and each other in the mirror, Bergman-personae of wary malice.
Moore portrays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a dominant and anxious woman with her signature Moore-esque style, who does indeed deliver the typical Moore scene of self-pity through tears. Gracie has combined her last name with that of her significantly younger second spouse Joe (Charles Melton), placing her surname first. She resides in a lavish manner in the affluent town of Calabasas, California, but it is possible that her husband’s earnings fund their lifestyle; Gracie’s only source of income is a side business selling ornately decorated cakes in the style of Martha Stewart to her neighbors.
However, the marriage between Gracie and Joe is built upon a scandal involving their sexual relationship. This scandal gained attention from the media and both disgusted and captivated the entire nation. Gracie, who was in her 30s and already married, seduced Joe when he was only 13 years old. This resulted in Grace becoming pregnant and facing a short period of incarceration. She is currently listed on a sex offenders’ registry. Despite these challenges, their relationship endured and they now have three children together. Two of their children are on the verge of graduating high school and one is currently enrolled in college. Joe’s children from his previous marriage are the same age as him, with Georgie (Cory Michael Smith) being the most difficult to handle due to the trauma caused by the scandal.
Excitement abounds as it is announced that Gracie’s life will be featured in an independent film, a marked contrast to the sensationalized and shallow re-enactments seen on tabloid TV. The role of Gracie will be portrayed by Elizabeth Berry (played by Natalie Portman), a highly esteemed actor with a Juilliard education who is seeking to break away from her role in a popular but frivolous veterinarian television series. Gracie finds herself in a meta-doppelganger situation similar to that of Moore’s character in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, where she portrays a struggling actress offered the opportunity to star in a remake of a film once led by her deceased mother.
Elizabeth arrives and joins the family, acting like their new close friend. She asks personal questions to fully immerse herself in the role, even mimicking Gracie’s hairstyle, mannerisms, makeup, and slight lisp. Elizabeth believes she can redeem them and turn their negative fame and shame into her own celebrity status through her sympathetic portrayal… or so she hopes. As Elizabeth gets closer to Joe, who is the same age as her, her Method acting has brought her into a romantic connection with this shy and attractive man. She senses that she can rescue him from his stagnant relationship with a woman who treats him like a child and bullies him.
There are a few issues with this: it’s odd that Elizabeth never asks Gracie about her time in prison, considering how crucial those scenes would be. However, Todd Haynes presents May December with a calculated and sharp precision, and Julianne Moore does a fantastic job portraying her dysfunctional character. In one memorable scene, Natalie Portman gives a lecture on acting to Gracie’s high school drama class, including a discussion on how sex scenes can evolve into genuine arousal for the actors involved. She poses the question, “Are you faking pleasure or suppressing it?” In this film, the pleasure is not fake.