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May December, Cannes review: Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore are tremendous in this Todd Haynes melodrama

Natalie Portman in ‘May December' (May December productions 2022 LLC)
Natalie Portman in ‘May December' (May December productions 2022 LLC)

What on earth would make a woman in her mid-thirties have an affair with a teenage boy? This is the question asked in Todd Haynes’s May December (which received its world premiere in competition in Cannes on Saturday 20 May). The new feature is another of the US director’s probing and torrid melodramas.

It has a plot that could come straight from a prurient TV soap opera but the US director behind Carol (2015) and Far From Heaven (2002) comes at his material with an intensity which rekindles memories of some of Ingmar Bergman’s most fraught and closely focused character studies. He elicits superb performances from his two leads, Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore.

Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, a movie star who travels to Savannah, Georgia, to research her new role. In her next film, she is going to play Gracie (Julianne Moore), a woman who, two decades before, was at the centre of a tabloid scandal after having an affair with a seventh-grader (that’s to say a boy who was 13 years old).

Gracie was arrested when the affair became public. She subsequently divorced her husband and married the boy, Joe (Charles Melton), who is over 20 years younger than her. They’ve started a family, have children of their own who are college age, and are now “a beloved part of the community”. However, Elizabeth’s arrival stirs up some very uncomfortable memories and reveals the still lingering resentments toward her.

Portman’s character radiates bad faith. She pretends to be sympathetic toward Gracie when she is really just looking to exploit her. “This is not a story. It’s my f***ing life,” Gracie exclaims at one stage as Elizabeth inveigles her way into her world in predatory fashion. The Hollywood star interviews everybody she can, from Gracie’s ex-husband to the son from her first marriage. (“It ruined my life, of course,” the son tells her of his mother’s illicit affair.) Elizabeth begins to dress like Gracie. She mimics everything about her from her make-up to her way of talking.

Elizabeth is a chameleon-like figure whose true emotions are impossible to read. In one telling scene, she turns up at the school Gracie’s children attend and speaks to the drama class. A student asks her about doing sex scenes on camera. She admits her ambivalence about such scenes. Sometimes, she is pretending to enjoy them but, on other occasions, the reverse applies: she is pretending not to enjoy them when actually she does.

Moore’s Gracie combines steeliness and vulnerability. She spends her days baking cakes which she sells to neighbours and exudes cheerfulness but it doesn’t take very much to reveal her insecurity and her selfishness.

Much of the pleasure of the film lies in its clash of styles. At certain moments, it is trashy and voyeuristic. At others, for example when Elizabeth and Gracie are alone together, it becomes closer to Bergman’s Persona, with its famous shot in which the faces of the actor played by Liv Ullmann and her nurse Bibi Andersson seem to merge. Marcelo Zarvos’s strident musical score adds to the jarring effect of the film.

Natalie Portman and Charles Melton (May December Productions 2022 LLC)
Natalie Portman and Charles Melton (May December Productions 2022 LLC)

As the two women shadow each other, Haynes also devotes time to Joe, the young husband who married a woman 20 years older than himself. Joe is obsessed with caterpillars and butterflies. He is a friendly figure but is stunted emotionally. It’s as if by marrying Gracie so young, he has skipped an entire part of his life and stumbled into middle age prematurely.

It is never quite clear who is exploiting whom. Gracie has presumably invited Elizabeth into her family home because she is being paid for it. There wouldn’t be any other reason for raking over such painful memories. She was shamed for her affair with a teenage boy but tells herself he was the one who initiated it. Elizabeth is a method actor, so relentlessly devoted to researching her new role that she seems to have lost any sense of compassion or ethical responsibility.

May December is a film without frills or special effects. It’s a closely focused character study, galvanised by the tremendous performances from Portman and Moore, which delves into areas more conventional dramas don’t go near.

Dir: Todd Haynes; Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore. UK release date tbc.