Todd Haynes' latest brings a complicated exploration of guilt and exploitation
Romantic age gaps have been exploited in film until very recently. Woody Allen was famous for placing himself or surrogate older characters alongside barely adult women. The recent Licorice Pizza (2021) also played with this concept, flipping traditional gender roles in the dynamic. The latest to take on this topic, but with a greater awareness of consent and grooming practices, is Todd Haynes’ May December (2023).
May December follows famous actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) as she shadows Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her much younger husband Joe (Charles Melton) in preparation for a role. Gracie served time in prison for sexually coercing Joe when he was a child. However, after she was released from prison the two married, had children, and built a life together.
Haynes has previously focused on complex morality and dubious power dynamics in films such as Far From Heaven (2002), Carol (2015), and Dark Waters (2019). With May December, Haynes has crafted his most morally intriguing film yet. As you fall deeper into the narrative, characters and their motivations become murkier. You begin to doubt who is a victim and who is a predator, only to have your suspicions flipped.
This opaque morality is played to perfection by Moore and Portman who are at the height of their powers under Haynes’ delicate direction. Portman keeps viewers guessing as to whether she is being exploitative of the pain at the center of this relationship, or whether she’s genuinely curious to bringing truth to her film. Moore, meanwhile, envelops herself in a Southern gentle charm with flits of victimhood and flashes of bullying. However, it is Melton’s performance, as a man beginning to grapple with the effects of his past, that is the most intriguing and impressive. Melton, previously a heartthrob in projects such as Riverdale (2017-2023) and The Sun is Also a Star (2019), brings forth a pain and frustration in a performance that reaches the level of his fellow on-screen Oscar-winners.
Haynes injects tonal, musical, and aesthetic visuals of a 1980s soap-opera, yet clashes it with the more nuanced script, performances, and direction. This contrast, similar to Far From Heaven with its Douglas Sirk flair, allows viewers to see the more complicated interior that exploitative tabloids and dramatic films taking this subject matter. This stylistic contrast will feel tacky to some viewers, who won’t see the tongue-in-cheek commentary, yet it proves daringly effective for the perceptive others.
In the end, May December is a rather fascinating watch, whose moral questions and hidden character motivations will leave many pondering where the guilt lie. Haynes’ unique and calculated direction along with three of the best performances of the year, particularly Melton’s standout, makes for an intriguing, uncomfortable, and captivating film.