The Face of Another
By Michael Koresky

May December
Dir. Todd Haynes, U.S., Netflix

Do you want to know what happened? In the early nineties, Gracie Atherton, a thirty-something woman working at a pet shop in Savannah, was caught having sex with junior high-schooler Joe Yoo. The dalliance with the underage boy led to Gracie’s arrest and, after a lengthy, public, and highly sensationalized trial, imprisonment for statutory rape. However, Gracie and Joe, who had been carrying on a sexual relationship, remained devoted and, by all outward evidence, in love with one another, and after she was released from jail and he was of legal age, they were wed. Now, it’s 2015, more than 20 years since the scandal erupted, and they’re still married.

Okay, those are the facts of the case. Now do you want to know why it happened? Do you want to know more about the emotional lives of the people involved? Perhaps you’re an actor and you’d like to know something about the interior landscape of Gracie Atherton-Yoo, all the better to portray her, or an approximation of her, in an upcoming movie inspired by the affair. Or perhaps you’re just a viewer of a movie about her life, not prurient at all, of course, just hoping to gain some insight about what would drive an adult woman to sexually engage with—and then build a romantic life around—a child. Or perhaps you’re watching a movie titled May December, about an actor who has been cast as Gracie in an upcoming movie and who is, like you, trying to gain emotional access to her life. You really want to know about her, don’t you? And while you’re at it, it’s only fair that you’d learn a little about Joe, who must have his own desires and thoughts. They do seem happy in that big, beautiful house near the water. Love transcends age, doesn’t it? Our culture is a little too obsessed with sex and predation, right? Who are we to judge? It’s none of our business, perhaps, but at least our fascination with them isn’t lurid—it’s curious, it’s humane.

Todd Haynes, the living American filmmaker with the greatest ability to plumb the depths of his characters while standing outside of them, has created a film that engages with and thwarts its viewers’ desires, expectations, emotions, and quest for answers while never erring on the side of the overtly analytical. Like Safe, it’s a movie constantly reckoning with the perceived shallowness of its characters; like Carol, it’s a movie about social affectation—the face put on for public approval and that which remains necessarily, frustratingly hidden. Even like Haynes’s epochal Barbie-doll breakout Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, it feels fully absorbed in questions around stardom, without falling into any clichés around the wages of fame or the hazards of living under the camera eye. A virtuoso at tonal precision, Haynes has here made a film that might seem comic to one, irretrievably tragic to another, possibly within the same scene, line reading, or surprising camera gesture—appropriate for a film about the derangement of living one’s life as an idea, an outline, an empty vessel on which others project expectations and judgments that only reflect their own biases. Haynes is doing something extraordinarily delicate and difficult in May December, reminding viewers—with the lightest of touches—that we’re all implicated and indulgent in the processes of social, cultural, and sexual exploitation that define the modern consciousness.

A world besotted by fame is paradoxically obsessed with reality. Even though we might accept the notion that a star (a TV or tabloid personality) traffics in illusion, we presume to know or understand the “real” person behind the image, the qualities that allow them to stand apart and become a singular being and not just a product for the delectation and consumption of others. Movie stardom has changed a lot in the 21st century—even almost disappeared—but Richard Dyer’s observation that stars “articulate both the promise and the difficulty that the notion of individuality presents for all of us who live by it” remains intact. The two women in May December represent different kinds of stars than Dyer was writing about—they are not Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland, but they similarly must contend with the weight of being looked at, sized up, and wondered about by strangers at all times. (Haynes, notably, doesn’t pity them for this, and neither should we.) Julianne Moore’s Gracie is famous because of her scandal; Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth is a well-known television actress, not a megastar but a person who scrupulously maintains the way she moves, looks, and maybe even feels. That maybe is essential for May December, which puts the viewer through a gauntlet of internal questions about its characters, disallowing us emotional connection while giving us just enough access to doubt how we inevitably size them up.

To play Gracie in an upcoming movie about her life, Elizabeth believes she must get to know the “real” Gracie, shadowing daily routines, delicately asking invasive questions, watching her movements, listening to her verbal cadences; to contend with the sudden appearance of Elizabeth in her life, the distrustful, but outwardly welcoming Gracie will have to strike a tricky balance between attempted warmth and emotional guardedness. As deftly performed by Moore and Portman, the women are thus performing for one another, their behavioral mannerisms practiced from years living in front of the (invited or unwanted) camera eye. Refusing to psychologize either woman, May December doesn’t reveal how Gracie or Elizabeth feel about being celebrities. There are no “real” moments of self-reflection—instead we the audience members are asked to become their mirror: a productively awkward experience since we’re as hopelessly inadequate in providing introspection as they are.

Rare is the director whose work remains elusive while appearing so aesthetically full frontal. May December seems at times as direct as a tabloid, but Haynes constantly betrays his film’s depths. There are no curlicues here, all straight lines indicating undulations beneath. His use of a repurposed Michel Legrand score from the 1971 film The Go-Between is the first clue he gives the audience that we’re both in and outside of the world he’s created: the insistent, crashing, minor-key theme Legrand wrote for that Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter adaptation of L. P. Hartley’s novel (about a man haunted by the loss of his innocence as a 13-year-old boy) sounds utterly out of time and step from contemporary cinematic musical accompaniment. It’s a flourish that immediately and eerily plunges Haynes’s film into an earlier era, guiding us into its reckoning with the contours of melodrama while also calling attention to its own appropriation. When we first hear it, over the opening credits, it’s played against close-up images of monarch butterflies, one of the film’s central motifs. The second time a few of Legrand’s piano bars emerge, they’re put to stranger, funnier use: Gracie, whom we’ve barely met, is preparing for a barbecue and, surveying the state of her refrigerator, worries, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” The camera suddenly zooms in and the music strikes, as though she’s confessed a dark sin or discovered a terrible secret. There aren’t so many of these cockeyed gestures in May December, yet Haynes’s expert deployment of it here indicates for the viewer how his knotty film will move within and around the generic framework of melodrama: not as camp, which would be too easy, but as a kind of detached indulgence.

As the film wends its path, it becomes ever clearer that Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch have no interest in mocking Gracie or Elizabeth—their essentially untrustworthy natures (as parents, as lovers, as performers) are worthy of examination and sympathy, not derision. The skeleton of melodrama allows us to engage with and question our responses to them. May December proves to be at its most direct and cutting as a domestic tragicomedy, allowing the quiet dysfunction of Gracie and Joe’s home life to poke through in jagged shards. Joe, now a maundering, middle-aged husband and father in a 36-year-old’s body, stands outside Gracie and Elizabeth’s tentative games of one-upmanship, yet as expertly played with halting cadence by Charles Melton, he proves crucial to May December’s vivid, increasingly emotional landscape. First seen hovering over a backyard grill with the kind of vacant expression reserved for mild-mannered American dads, Melton cuts an enormously poignant, hulking figure, his tightly coiled, taciturn sweetness leaving us to wonder what experiences might have been taken from him over his past two decades, marked in equal parts by national scandal and suburban drudgery—the extraordinary abutting the hopelessly normal. Joe, a Korean-American whose melancholy, widowed dad still lives close by, works at a local hospital as an x-ray technician, interpreting bone breaks and fractures, but his passion is reserved for his pastime nurturing butterfly chrysalises. Associated with such blatant metaphorical concepts—examining the internal shatters and splinters of others when he seems unable to articulate his own; raising insects from pupal larvae into maturity before freeing them, a courtesy he was perhaps never allowed—Joe becomes the film’s most blatantly “interpretable” character, which feels like a sort of kindness on Haynes’s part, as though the circumstances of his life have pardoned him from May December’s crypto-comic inquiries into performance.

The most damning insights into the psychological wreckage floating beneath May December’s brittle surface come via the relationships among Gracie and Joe and their three kids, the twins Mary (Elizabeth Yu) and Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and the slightly older Honor (Piper Curda), who visits from college for her siblings’ high school graduation, an event that gives this film about characters of various stunted growths a narrative—and neatly metaphorical—shape. While Gracie may not care to offer up very much about her life to Elizabeth, taking most of her questions as unwanted interrogations, the visiting actress is given clues—along with us viewers—to Gracie’s insecurities through the way she passive-aggressively insults her daughters. In an especially gutting, elegantly written scene set in a clothing shop where Mary is trying on graduation dresses in front of her mom and Elizabeth, Gracie “congratulates” her daughter for being unself-conscious, praising her for showing her bare arms despite society’s “impossible beauty standards”—a bit of body-shaming that registers on Yu’s face with subtle heart-withering; later, at an awkward dinner, Honor, newly emboldened by living away at school, upbraids her mother for having gifted her a scale as a graduation present. In a lighter scene nevertheless twinged with melancholy, Joe and Charlie share a father-son bonding moment on the roof of their house, as well as a joint, which encourages laughs but also necessitates awkward emotions: Joe has never smoked pot before, and has likely never been so forthright with such tearful declarations.

The most irrevocably destroyed parent-child relationship in the film is between Gracie and her son from her first marriage, Georgie (a brilliantly slippery turn from the chameleonic Cory Michael Smith). The same age as Joe, Georgie unabashedly tells Elizabeth about the psychic injury of his mother’s scandal, yet as written and performed, George also embodies a generational extension of Gracie’s toxicity. A stunted youth himself, Georgie, sporting chipped painted fingernails and bleached hair, aggressively ignores others’ boundaries, oversharing details about his childhood trauma with evident delight (“I ate so many fuckin’ Warheads that I threw up”) while invading personal space—look at the way he drinks from Elizabeth’s water glass and grabs a chunk of muffin from her tablemate. Later, he will reveal to Elizabeth his own borderline unethical ambitions, throwing into relief the already porous divide between the “real” people she’s investigating and the world of make-believe of which she’s an emissary.

May December is defined by these negotiations between authenticity and theatricality, most dramatically and thrillingly in the performances of its two stars, high-wire acts that expertly toe the line between performativity and caution. (This contradictory out-in-the-open hiddenness is also, not incidentally, what makes this a quintessentially queer film.) Moore’s work with Haynes has always brought out the dreamy greatest in this magnetic, diamond-hard actor; in Safe and Far from Heaven, she was wondrous at expressing individualized humanity despite her characters being almost surgically trapped in domestic environments. As the purposefully impenetrable Gracie, she creates a character unlike any other I’ve seen on screen, at all times she’s simultaneously self-assured and deluded, domineering and childlike, victim and perpetrator—a fragile and apt approach to character for a film that so delicately treads around questions of power and predation.

Expertly cast in her greatest role, Portman, meanwhile, savvily deploys her arsenal of actorly mannerisms to both elucidate and cloak Elizabeth. Her interactions with the “real world” players of this Savannah scandal often feel as canned as their surely long-rehearsed answers. Look at the way she responds to a local fan’s compliment with an exclamation of “that means the world” delivered with exquisite, practiced disingenuousness, hand to chest. Or when, during a visit to a high school theater class, Elizabeth goes off on a reverie about the difficulty and complexity of shooting sex scenes to a room full of teenagers. Musing with self-satisfied, adult sophistication to the kids about whether she’s in her own head during such scenes, or if she’s actually turned on (because she’s trying not to be?), Portman disallows us from interpreting Elizabeth’s monologue as either merely provocative or rigorously investigative. Her words may ring in our ears later when Elizabeth seduces Joe in a swift yet notably explicit sex scene between Portman and Melton. She may have waxed poetic on the extraordinary intimacy that can occur between actors simulating eroticism, yet she treats the “real-life” Joe, whose sexual experience has been limited to the same woman since he was 13, with casual disregard. Her disinterest in Joe as anything other than a quickie—and perhaps a bit of role research—is effortlessly illustrated in her killer postcoital sendoff: this is just what grownups do.

Stage-managing a battery of merciless behavior, Haynes never dismisses any of May December’s characters as villains (though there are certainly no heroes). This is, after all, a film about abuse, trauma, and the multiple ways in which a life can be exploited, sexually or culturally—thorny stuff for our contemporary moment, in which the societal obsession with the specter of pedophilia has crossed over into noxious, even dangerous political territory, engendering simplistic conspiracy theories cynically created to win the sympathy of an easily coerced public (itself another form of exploitation). Haynes’s film is far more interested in the ways we are coopted into such conversations, and how these scandals can take on sensational lives of their own, than it is concerned with protecting our nation’s little dears. Yet it’s nevertheless damning and finally definitive in acknowledging the psychological scars inflicted by sexual mistreatment, on both personal and social scales. Haynes is simply too curious and humane to let anyone win.