FOUR STARS An adult woman seduced a thirteen year old boy. Her story is becoming a film.
DRAMA US English #MAYDECEMBER
Starring Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman
It’s kind of creepy just how much Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, who by any measure do not look alike, look so much alike in this delicious psycho-thriller from Todd Haynes. The director of equally arresting dramas such as FAR FROM HEAVEN and CAROL is on form exploring theft, lost opportunity and sexual abuse against a background of total lack of self-awareness. Ironic, given the story centres on a very self-aware actress
Elizabeth (Portman) is a star who’s gone full-method. Her next feature is about Gracie (Moore) who, as a married adult woman had an affair with 13 year old Joe. It was a scandal that shocked the nation who, once penance was paid, quickly moved on. Twenty years later, with belligerent neighbours, two sets of children and a second husband half her age, Gracie’s story is catnip to an actress like Elizabeth. She embeds herself in the family to better understand her subject.
With both women circling one another, wary of the other’s intent, the story takes on a decidedly disquieting tone. Why would Gracie do what she did? Why did Joe do what he did? Why do they continue to do what they do and what does the family really feel about it all? Then there’s the issue of Elizabeth adopting Gracie’s posture, mannerisms, and, unexpectedly, her looks as she settles deep into the character she's adopted (stolen?) What does Gracie think about that? In fact, does Gracie really think or feel anything at all, other than distraught at the demise of her online baking business. Or disgust at the parcels of dog-shit regularly left on her doorstep.
Elizabeth is not much more in touch as she mechanically seduces Joe (research) or interviews the extended family, either unaware or uncaring about the scabs she’s picking at and damage she might be causing. As MAY DECEMBER sets about destabilising everyone in the story, Haynes keeps returning to the central conceit - do you choose your role in life, or does it chose you? And what if someone steals it from you? Joe is the ultimate man-child who finally seems to be considering a new role for himself, having spent most of his life living the one forced on him by Gracie.
Which leads to the most glaring question: why have Gracie and Joe conceded to have a film made about their life, an intrusion that will inevitably dredge up scandal, judgement and raw emotion? Surely wilful ignorance can only go so far. It’s a dynamic which speaks to all the characters, people who try to inhabit conflicting roles with a complete lack of appreciation at the price that must be paid. They’ve all got a lot of growing up to do.
An excellent cast is led by Moore who delivers one of her most fabulously brittle performances, balancing Gracie on a knife edge between hopeless fragility and punishing savagery. The triangular dynamic at the heart of MAY DECEMBER is terrific stuff, especially if your taste runs to low wattage high camp. It’s not better exemplified than in a scene when Elizabeth imagines then privately enacts the initial seduction in a pet shop store room. It’s show-stopping, summing up all the wonderfully creepy that the film has to offer.