“May December” is a film that defies easy categorization, a hallmark of director Todd Haynes’ approach to cinema. This review delves into the film’s narrative, performances, direction, and thematic explorations, examining how each element contributes to the film’s unsettling yet compelling nature.
The Narrative: A Tapestry of Complexity and Ambiguity
Dual Narratives and Thematic Depth
The film opens with a scene that immediately sets a tone of confusion and intrigue. We are introduced to Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) and Gracie Atherton (Julianne Moore) in separate, yet equally perplexing scenarios. This duality in narrative is a recurring theme throughout the film, as Haynes weaves a story rich in complexity and moral ambiguity.
Backstory and Character Development
“May December” explores the aftermath of a scandal involving Gracie, a then 36-year-old woman, and Joe, a seventh-grader, leading to a prison sentence and a controversial marriage. The film’s refusal to provide clear-cut answers to the moral questions posed by this backstory is one of its most compelling aspects. This ambiguity forces the audience to grapple with their own perceptions and judgments.
The Performances: A Trio of Depth and Intrigue
Natalie Portman’s Transformational Role
Portman’s portrayal of Elizabeth is a highlight of the film. Her character’s transformation, as she delves deeper into Gracie’s persona, is executed with subtlety and depth. The gradual shift in Elizabeth’s character is a testament to Portman’s skill, as she navigates the nuances of a role within a role, blurring the lines between actress and character.
Julianne Moore’s Enigmatic Gracie
Moore’s performance as Gracie is both fascinating and unnerving. Her portrayal of a woman seemingly oblivious to the gravity of her past actions adds a layer of complexity to the film. Moore’s Gracie is a character that evades easy understanding, challenging the viewer to consider the various facets of her personality and history.
Charles Melton’s Heartbreaking Portrayal
Melton’s role as Joe, now an adult trapped in the aftermath of his childhood trauma, is portrayed with a poignant subtlety. His portrayal of a man overshadowed by his past, and the complexities of his relationship with Gracie, adds a crucial dimension to the film’s exploration of its themes.
Direction and Cinematography: Crafting a Distinctive Atmosphere
Todd Haynes’ Vision
Haynes’ direction is integral to the film’s impact. His ability to find horror in the everyday and to expose the emptiness beneath the surface of normalcy is evident throughout “May December.” The film’s tone, which oscillates between dark humor and genuine horror, showcases Haynes’ unique vision and his influence from 1950s melodramas and psychosexual narratives.
Christopher Blauvelt’s Cinematography
Blauvelt’s work as the cinematographer brings a surreal quality to the film’s setting. His depiction of Savannah, with its soft light and ethereal atmosphere, contributes to the film’s sense of disconnection from reality. This approach not only enhances the narrative but also serves as a visual metaphor for the characters’ emotional states.
Score and Sound Design: Amplifying the Emotional Impact
Marcelo Zarvos’ Adaptation
The score, adapted by Marcelo Zarvos from Michel Legrand’s work, plays a crucial role in setting the film’s tone. Its melodramatic intensity complements the narrative’s twists and turns, enhancing the emotional impact of key scenes.
Sound as a Narrative Device
The film’s use of ambient sound, including the recurring motif of a walking tour, adds another layer to its exploration of history and memory. These sounds serve as a constant reminder of the past’s presence and its impact on the characters’ lives.
Thematic Explorations: Delving into Human Nature and Society
The Nature of Scandal and Perception
“May December” delves deep into the nature of scandal, public perception, and the complexities of human relationships. The film challenges the viewer to consider the societal response to such controversies, and the human propensity to judge and be fascinated by the misfortunes of others.
The Role of History and Memory
The film also explores themes of history, memory, and their role in shaping our understanding of the present. The recurring motif of the walking tour symbolizes how history often becomes background noise, influencing us in subtle yet profound ways.
A Cinematic Experience That Challenges and Provokes
“May December” stands as a testament to the power of cinema to challenge, provoke thought, and explore the depths of human experience. The film’s narrative complexity, stellar performances, distinctive direction, and thematic richness make it a must-watch for those seeking a cinema experience that goes beyond the conventional. Haynes, Portman, Moore, and Melton deliver a film that is as unsettling as it is captivating.