Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of A24
There’s something a tad Bergman-esque about the premise of May December – a melodramatic and tedious comedy-drama from director Todd Haynes and the centrepiece of this year’s London Film Festival, which is sadly nowhere near the standout it was hoped to be.
With typical commitment, Julianne Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo – a nervy woman married to her younger second husband Joe (Charles Melton).
Gracie, as the film makes painfully clear, is very stressed.
The source of her anxieties is Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a respected actor coming to spend time with Gracie. You see, Gracie is a sex-offender: she seduced Joe when he was thirteen and she was in her thirties. Gracie was married with children at the time, discovered she was pregnant with Joe’s child, and was sent to jail. Miraculously, her and Joe are still together. Elizabeth is playing her in an independent film and promises Gracie the story will be handled with sensitivity and seriousness.
Haynes has a proclivity to shoot the two women standing next to each other, staring into a mirror and the camera. They look at each other like hungry beasts, circling and snapping. Portman is playing Elizabeth playing at being Gracie played by Moore. Where does one end? Where does the other begin?
Tentatively, both Gracie and Elizabeth deliberately strain the limits of the dynamic and it’s in these scenes that the film is strongest. Elizabeth draws Gracie’s ire when she interviews her first husband and hears about the trauma of finding out what his wife had done. Gracie, meanwhile, does Elizabeth’s makeup – but it’s in the image of how Gracie wishes to be seen and not what she really looks like.
Haynes is operating in a classic mode of camp filmmaking here, but the film skims uncomfortably close to being a poor imitation of Pedro Almodóvar. What makes Almodóvar’s films so thrilling is their rapid-fire dialogue and sumptuous production design, with a steady tension bubbling away beneath the surface before it inevitably explodes; Haynes’ film is characterised by bland interiors and a plot which strains credibility, but fixates itself on irony-tinged seriousness.
It’s not to say that May December isn’t worth watching. It’s never not-very-entertaining-to-watch; Portman and Moore lock horns, their strained attempts at keeping things civil despite the weirdness of the situation never failing to draw laughs. And there’s a lovely supporting turn from Charles Melton as Gracie’s husband. He plays Joe’s realisation that perhaps by staying with Gracie he robbed himself of the opportunity to do bigger and better things, with kind-hearted naivety.
But none of these things dispel the impression that May December should be a far better film than it is. The melodramatic zoom-ins (accompanied by serious piano and strings) start funny but become gradually unbearable, and the shots of Portman and Moore sizing each other up in mirrors lose their impact quickly.
The pacing of Samy Burch’s screenplay is sluggish and unfocused: is this about a method actor manipulating her way to a good performance, or an abuser reckoning with the awfulness of what she did? Or is it about a victim realising the trajectory of his life has been decided by the singular abhorrence of what he was subjected to as a child?
Each would make a fine film, but whilst May December strives to be all three it’s too slack to be a thriller and too shallow to be a compelling study of life after abuse.
Instead, Haynes goes through the motions, giving us a quotable film full of excellent screengrabs and GIFs that never quite takes on the power it should do. And it’s Moore who comes most unstuck, delivering yet another rendition of the vaguely hysterical woman she’s been stuck playing for most of her career. She deserves better than this.
May December – official trailer
LFF screenings begin at MAC on 4 October and run until 15 October, with tickets for all films and events on the programme now on sale. For full listings and links to online ticket sales visit: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/london-film-festival-2023
To read more about the BFI London Film Festival go to: www.whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
For more from MAC, including all events listings, visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk
To follow Jimmy Dougan on Letterboxed visit www.letterboxd.com/jimmydougan