Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore deliver captivating performances in “May December.”

Todd Haynes’ latest film is a creepy and campy masterpiece.

In Todd Haynes’ new film, the title “May-December” carries a seemingly innocent charm, masking a deeper, unsettling darkness. Typically associated with romances where one partner is significantly older than the other, such as Sofia Vergara and Ed O’Neill in Modern Family, the bleak irony of applying this term to a relationship marked by statutory rape and psychological damage is the first stroke of brilliance in Haynes’ latest masterpiece. “May December” is both creepy and campy, offering a dizzying experience that will linger in your mind long after the credits roll.

Hollywood movies often indulge in childhood fantasies, as evidenced by this year’s dominance of the box office by movies featuring characters like Mario and Barbie. Therefore, it’s refreshing when a film emerges with meaningful commentary on contemporary adult concerns. Even more compelling is when such a film explores the violent collision between adult life and the innocence of childhood. However, “May December” goes beyond that, fictionalizing the real-life Mary Kay Letourneau story while also delving into themes of true-crime fascination, age-gap relationships, and the blurred boundaries between journalism and performance in the age of social media. These themes resonate deeply with the complexities of life online in 2023.

Portman’s character adds a transformative layer to “May December,” elevating it from a typical true-crime narrative often found in streaming service queues to a meta-fictional exploration of how media can distort people’s perceptions of themselves and their realities. As Elizabeth delves deeper into Gracie and Joe’s story, it becomes clear that the couple lives in a secure bubble, shielded from the implications of their past and the true nature of their relationship. However, Elizabeth’s probing questions begin to puncture this bubble, forcing Gracie and Joe to confront uncomfortable truths about their past and the impact it has had on their present lives. Through Elizabeth’s investigation, the film explores themes of identity, self-awareness, and the consequences of media scrutiny on personal narratives.

“May December” challenges conventional perceptions of age-gap relationships, particularly those where the older partner is male and the younger partner is female. In Gracie and Joe’s relationship, this dynamic is reversed, offering a fresh perspective on the complexities of such unions. However, this inversion is not the only role reversal in the film. Elizabeth’s role as an actress portraying Gracie adds another layer of complexity. As Elizabeth spends more time with Gracie, she begins to adopt aspects of her personality and behavior, blurring the lines between reality and performance. This raises questions about who is truly influencing whom in their interactions.

Moreover, the film explores the nuances of Gracie and Joe’s characters, highlighting their speech patterns as indicators of their past experiences. Gracie’s lisp and Joe’s stutter are portrayed as potential manifestations of their troubled childhoods, yet the film also suggests the possibility of performative victimhood. As the story unfolds, viewers may find their perceptions of Gracie’s relationships with her neighbors and her eldest son evolving, mirroring the metamorphosis of monarch butterflies, which Joe keeps in special habitats throughout their home. These shifts in perception contribute to the film’s exploration of identity, agency, and the complexities of human behavior.

Portman delivers a captivating performance at the heart of “May December,” serving as the audience’s guide through the intricate layers of the narrative. While she assumes the role of an audience surrogate, her character is far from an objective observer. Instead, she actively seeks to immerse herself in the lives of Gracie and Joe, absorbing their experiences and emotions into her own psyche. The film fearlessly explores the unsettling implications of this process, adding depth and complexity to Portman’s portrayal.

Furthermore, Portman’s decision not to direct “May December” herself, despite initially considering it after being approached with the script by screenwriter Samy Burch, demonstrates her keen understanding of the project’s needs. Instead, she recognized Todd Haynes as the ideal director, given his expertise in navigating complex narratives and exploring the darker aspects of human nature. By leveraging her star power as a producer, Portman ensured that the film was helmed by the right creative talent, allowing Haynes the freedom to execute his vision without undue pressure or interference.

In an industry where directors often receive the lion’s share of credit for successful films, Portman’s choice to prioritize the selection of the right director over assuming the directorial role herself showcases a different approach to filmmaking—one that emphasizes collaboration and trust in the creative process.

Moore’s collaboration with Haynes in “May December” echoes their previous work together, adding depth and resonance to her character, Gracie. Astute viewers may notice subtle parallels with their past collaborations, such as Gracie’s insistence on her son drinking milk, reminiscent of Moore’s character in “Safe,” who famously struggled with similar issues. Additionally, the theme of forbidden romance in Gracie’s relationship with Joe may evoke memories of “Far From Heaven.”

However, Moore’s portrayal of Gracie defies easy categorization. Just when viewers think they understand her motivations or desires, Moore deftly subverts expectations, keeping the audience on their toes. Her performance adds layers of complexity to Gracie, ensuring that she remains enigmatic and compelling throughout the film.

In “May December,” Moore once again showcases her remarkable talent for portraying complex characters, further solidifying her status as one of Hollywood’s most versatile and captivating actresses.

In “May December,” Haynes demonstrates his mastery of visual storytelling by meticulously crafting a cinematic environment that mirrors the characters’ emotions and experiences. Much like in his previous film “Safe,” the setting becomes an integral part of the narrative, subtly influencing and reflecting the characters’ inner lives.

For example, during a poignant moment when Joe recounts falling in love with Gracie, the golden-hour sunlight filtering through the Georgia swamp serves as a metaphor for the warmth and illumination he felt in her presence. Similarly, the ominous rumbling of thunderclouds during a tense argument between characters underscores the growing tension and conflict in the scene.

Haynes’ careful use of camera angles and perspectives further enhances the viewer’s immersion in the characters’ world. Whether capturing intimate moments from around a corner or through a mirror, or portraying seemingly safe spaces with an unsettling aura, Haynes creates an atmosphere that invites viewers to become voyeurs, privy to the characters’ most private moments and secrets.

Through these subtle yet impactful visual cues, Haynes adds depth and complexity to the storytelling in “May December,” elevating the film beyond a mere narrative and immersing audiences in a rich and immersive cinematic experience.

The distribution strategy for “May December,” following its premiere at film festivals and subsequent acquisition by Netflix, offers audiences the opportunity to experience the film in different contexts, each with its own advantages.

For those attending the limited theatrical release, the communal aspect of watching the film in a theater setting can enhance the viewing experience. Sharing the discomfort and emotional impact of the story with fellow audience members can create a sense of solidarity and engagement that adds to the overall impact of the film.

On the other hand, streaming the film on Netflix provides viewers with the flexibility to watch it in the comfort of their own homes. This allows for a more intimate viewing experience, where audiences can immerse themselves fully in the film without any distractions or disruptions. Additionally, the availability of “May December” alongside other true-crime programs on the streaming platform may contribute to a heightened sense of unease and intrigue, making the viewing experience even more captivating.

Overall, whether watched in a theater or at home, “May December” promises to deliver an alarming and thought-provoking viewing experience that will leave a lasting impression on audiences.

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