CANNES, France—A melodramatic score blares. A camera pulls in on a soft focus image of Julianne Moore staring inside a fridge. It seems like we're getting ready for a big revelation, something out of the soap opera playbook. Instead she says, with immense gravity: “I don't think we have enough hot dogs.” This is Todd Haynes’ May December, the latest movie to rock the Cannes Film Festival.
Saturday was a busy night on the Croisette. Not only did it mark the premiere of Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon, it also saw the introduction of Haynes' latest, a wonderfully tawdry, upsetting, and often hilarious film, that leans into its tabloid inspirations through an art house lens and features a breakout role for Charles Melton of Riverdale fame.
It would seem like these two movies couldn't be more different, but I felt a theme running through my Cannes viewing that night: The lies people tell themselves to justify their own atrocious actions. Haynes just tackles this with a dose of a camp and two of our great actresses acting their faces off.
Julianne Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a baker who lives in Savannah, Georgia in a gorgeous, waterfront house with her teen twins and her husband Joe (Melton). Except the catch is: Gracie is a Mary Kay Letourneau figure, who was caught having sex with Joe in the stock room of a pet shop when he was in seventh grade. Joe is now in his thirties and they have stayed together, becoming accepted members of their community, save for the occasional box of poop that arrives on their doorstep.
The action begins as Elizabeth Berry, played by Natalie Portman, arrives in town. Famous for her role on a TV show named Norah’s Ark, Elizabeth is playing Gracie in an indie film and wants to study her and her world. Elizabeth’s declared intention is to portray Gracie with respect, but the actress is also a natural shit stirrer who is more interested in her own vanity than anything else as she goes around town digging up dirt.
Stuck in between these women is Joe, a dedicated husband and loving father with a beer belly, whose greatest joy is tending to his monarch butterflies. He’s also morose, and in denial about the abuse that has shaped his life. He insists that he and Gracie were in love, and remains loyal to her even though there's clearly an absence that is haunting him.
Melton is the surprise here. Though he projects swagger as Reggie on The CW, he tamps down his heartthrob qualities to play a man who is both old for his age and young. With one kid away at college and two more graduating high school, he holds the posture of a middle aged dad while at the same time maintaining the innocence of someone still stuck in childhood. It's a heartbreaking turn that complements and adds weight to an intentionally mannered universe.
If this all sounds very serious: It is and it isn't. Haynes understands just how upsetting this story is, and lets that crawl and fester under your skin, but he’s also interested in why audiences are fascinated with this material. He calls upon the language of this ugly American obsession in his filmmaking utilizing tricks from Lifetime movies and daytime TV, showing us glimpses of National Enquirer-type headlines. The aforementioned score—composed by Marcelo Zarvos and using themes from Michel Legrand's 1971 The Go-Between—swells in moments that seem otherwise mundane.
Haynes couldn’t have achieved his darkly comic tone without his two leading ladies: Portman and Moore, the latter of whom is perhaps his greatest collaborator thanks to films like Safe and Far from Heaven. Both of the female protagonists perceive themselves as people they are not. Elizabeth, Juilliard-trained, believes her investigation is necessary for her art. Gracie takes on the cheery demeanor of the perfect suburban mom. And then the cracks that begin to show.
Moore wears Gracie's denial as armor, occasionally slipping into a lisp when she’s upset. She’s a master manipulator, who doesn’t think of herself as such, or at least would never admit it. You spend the runtime trying to decide whether she's damaged or a psychopath and you land somewhere in between. It’s a tricky line to walk, but what Portman does is even trickier.
Elizabeth starts the movie as audience surrogate, entering this bizarro universe where everything is presented as normal but is actually truly fucked. And yet Portman slowly unveils that Elizabeth is too grappling with her own breaks in reality. Her journey—at times literally—mirrors Gracie, as Elizabeth starts to mime her subject's moments. The scenes where they are in the same frame are unnerving, Portman nailing the awkwardness of mimicry.
Still, the most crushing, astounding sequence is an unbroken monologue Portman gives toward the end of the film as she tries to inhabit Gracie at her most monstrous. It’s a fabulous performance of a performance. You can see Elizabeth trying to contort herself into Gracie in Portman's face, captured by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt in the unnatural light of a makeup table. Portman is thrilled by what she's doing, convinced of her own brilliance. And that too is something of a lie.
May December doesn’t yet have distribution—though it will soon, I bet. After all: Who can resist Moore and Portman going head to head in a battle of who can delude herself the best?
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