May December Is a Wicked Imitation Game

May December Is a Wicked Imitation Game

Mary Kay Letourneau was a 35-year-old schoolteacher in Seattle in 1997, when her sexual relationship with a preteen student earned her 15 minutes of infamy. Cast as the porcelain blonde visage of middle-aged, maternal perversion, Letourneau gamely positioned herself as an existential victim; the title of the quickie tell-all she co-wrote with her partner, Vili Fualaau, while in jail was Un Seul Crime, L’amour (“only one crime, love”). “She doesn’t believe she needs treatment because she doesn’t believe that she did anything wrong,” snarked the prosecutor who tried the case, and in a pre-internet era when a People cover and an Oprah appearance could make somebody a household name, the ambiguity of Letourneau’s motives proved irresistible fodder for pop psychologists, armchair moralizers, and supermarket-aisle rubberneckers alike.

Todd Haynes’s May December, a velvet-black comedy set amid the still-smoldering wreckage of a ’90s tabloid scandal, carries unmistakable echoes of Letourneau’s story. When the film opens, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) is now half a lifetime removed from the fateful hookup that rendered her a pop-cultural punch line. She was thirtysomething and married with kids; Joe (Charles Melton) was in middle school; their stars crossed in the stockroom of a Georgia pet store. From there, Gracie went to jail, where she delivered a baby behind bars and waited out her sentence. Now, she and her lover-turned-husband have feathered their nest in sweltering Savannah, living out an unlikely happily ever after that, if nothing else, gives the neighbors something to talk about.

While Gracie may be modeled on a real-life figure, she also arrives freighted with the baggage of Moore’s previous collaborations with director Todd Haynes in Safe (1995) and Far From Heaven (2002): twin portraits of women wilting in stifling terrariums of American domesticity, emotions under the microscope, looking in vain for ways to escape. Gracie seems to be made of both softer and more solid stuff. The role of Southern belle becomes her, and as the film begins, she appears almost serene in her disconnection from the world outside her door. The question would seem to be whether taking the stand in both the halls of justice and the court of public opinion has toughened her up or spaced her out.

Our apparent surrogate in this investigation is Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a popular, high-powered television actress who’s set to portray Gracie in an upcoming independent film, and who, in the name of research, has decamped to Savannah to embed with Gracie’s family, studying her routine and interviewing her acquaintances. A wonderful, tone-setting joke: Arriving at her hostess’s sprawling homestead, Elizabeth hands Gracie a package she’d found on the doorstep. Turns out it’s the latest in a series of boxes containing feces, donated by scandalized locals.

Tough shit, then, and Elizabeth’s attempts to convince Gracie—and maybe herself—that she isn’t just adding to the pile with her new project become a running gag. It’s a fine line between transgressive, humane art and exploitative, made-for-TV trash, and, given both his postmodernist bona fides and wicked sense of humor, Haynes would seem to be an ideal filmmaker to walk it—to simultaneously satirize and scrutinize works that have recently popped up to retell the stories of such formerly abject figures as Monica Lewinsky, Tonya Harding, and Lorena Bobbitt, a subgenre that’s proved conducive to both boomer and Gen X nostalgia.

And yet for all its humid hothouse atmosphere and campy trimmings—including a hilariously portentous musical score repurposed from Joseph Losey’s Harold Pinter adaptation The Go-Between—May December isn’t a spoof or pastiche, but more of a psychological pas de deux between mutually agile partners, a study of keeping up appearances under intense, even vicious scrutiny.

For much of May December, we follow Elizabeth around town as she probes for intel on Gracie’s past and present lives and stickhandles her other personal and professional commitments (including what sounds like a flailing relationship) via cell phone. If she’s not quite welcomed by the community, she isn’t exactly shunned either: Celebrity is its own form of currency, and it turns out that there are plenty of people with opinions about Gracie’s actions. This includes her adult son from her previous marriage, who, having spent plenty of time privately grinding his ax, may finally be ready to swing.

Just as Moore’s presence in May December carries echoes of her earlier work with Haynes, Portman can’t help but recall her own past roles as precocious and weirdly sexualized preteens in Léon and Beautiful Girls, as well as her Oscar-winning tour de force in Black Swan, where she played a ballerina having her life force sucked away by a younger, even more unscrupulous co-star. With this in mind, Portman gives Elizabeth some subtly vampiric qualities; she’s oddly bloodless unless she’s feeding, quietly but voraciously, on her hostess’s mannerisms.

As the film goes on, though, a funny thing happens: Elizabeth’s Gracie act grows both more adept and more hostile, as if imitation were in fact the least sincere form of flattery. The tension between the two women keeps the narrative pressurized—we’re perpetually waiting for some kind of blowup—but Haynes is after something larger and more abstract than an A-list catfight. Posed together in front of a mirror for a style tutorial, warily eyeing each other as they dexterously apply blush, Gracie and Elizabeth take part in a very particular and performative sort of feminine artifice: By so elaborately putting their faces on, they’re also going mask off on their shared skepticism and contempt, and maybe also on some sort of deeper, mutual recognition.

This bravura two-shot is at once May December’s shiveriest and funniest moment, highlighting Moore’s and Portman’s exquisite technical control. The image of their faces recalls a category that critic Miriam Bale has called the “persona swap” film, in which female complicity and competition blur together into a fugue of psychic slippage (think Mulholland Drive). In another mesmerizing sequence, Elizabeth prowls through the strip-mall shop where Gracie and Joe had their fateful fling, as if trying to mind-fuck herself into a state of comparable excitation. Here, Haynes seems to be prodding our own voyeurism, as well as setting up a story of genuine transference—though Gracie is never similarly drawn to become Elizabeth’s doppelgänger. We get the sense that either she has no interest in role-play or she’s long since internalized the process, having spent three decades doing her best imitation of herself.

The deconstruction of public personas is a running theme in Haynes’s work dating back to 1987’s magnificent, career-making DIY short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which dramatized its namesake’s tragic, public decline by reducing her to a literally carved-up Barbie doll. Released under the radar into a Mattel-saturated zeitgeist, Superstar took the consumerist gibes of Frank Zappa’s “Plastic People,” and humanized them (somewhere, Greta Gerwig was taking notes, not to mention the Team America guys). In this aggressively handmade film, the act of playing with dolls was anything but innocent; instead, it played up stereotypes around American gender roles while doubling as a commentary on the manipulation inherent in filmmaking.

It takes a special kind of sensibility to make films that are heady and visceral at the same time, and Haynes has it; even in carefully annotated melodramas like Far From Heaven, which riffed wickedly on the frictionless Norman Rockwell 1950s, he gave the lie to the idea that an intellectually oriented cinema has to be dry. Even at their most contraption-ish—like the meticulously subdivided Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, with its multiple incarnations of the main character—his films are lubricated by beauty and eroticism. Haynes’s glam rock mystery, Velvet Goldmine, fairly drips with glittery intrigue; the period lesbian romance Carol, featuring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett as high-society exiles turned lovers on the run, was a precisely measured cocktail of blood, sweat, and tears. What’s fascinating—and slightly atypical—about May December is how carefully it works to drain the luridness out of its premise, while still showing a reality not only stranger than fiction, but also crueler.

The age-gap romance in Carol could have also been titled May December, and it’s a measure of the wittiness of Samy Burch’s script that the generational conflicts and contrasts embodied by Gracie and Elizabeth are rhymed against Gracie’s relationship with Joe. Their marriage defies Elizabeth’s (and our) expectations, first at a glance by eschewing obvious dysfunction—they have a lovely home, lots of friends, and three smart college-age kids—and then again via the kind of complicated dynamics that only reveal themselves under sustained contemplation: first and foremost the ways that Joe, who’s both fascinated by and wary of Elizabeth’s presence, tries to occupy the role of “man of the house.” Broad-shouldered and bulky in a barely postadolescent wardrobe of T-shirts and jeans, Joe projects himbo-ish qualities that Melton, who had his teen-idol moment on Riverdale, shades with melancholy. Joe’s a decent guy, but he’s also a quiet, recessive presence. His attractiveness is somehow compounded by his palpable lack of gravitas: the feeling that even at 36, he hasn’t grown into his body, and he never will.

“This is just what grown-ups do,” sneers Elizabeth to Joe after the brief, inevitable sexual encounter that serves as May December’s de facto climax—a line that’s at once hilarious and devastating in context. The charges of immaturity boomerang back on Portman, who’s here as an ethically compromised professional pretender, but not before drawing blood from the lost boy on the receiving end of the accusation. The implication is that Joe has now been preyed on twice over, the second time for nothing more—or, in his seducer’s view, nothing less—than Hollywood awards-season glory.

The coda, meanwhile, leaves an even nastier aftertaste, as we visit the set of Elizabeth’s film and survey the skeezy details. The suggestion is that in the absence of true curiosity—or empathy—all that’s left for successful, ambitious entertainers to exploit is themselves, perpetrator and victim in a single package. Less a moralist than a showman, Haynes gives Elizabeth the big finish she deserves: suspended in between takes, giving it her all, trapped in a loop of ardent yet futile fakery as the truth recedes before her. As for Gracie, she remains as present and elusive as ever, an open book written in invisible ink.

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