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In Todd Haynes’s May December, icy restraint might leave you too cold

<span>Photograph: François Duhamel/AP</span>
Photograph: François Duhamel/AP

Expensive and atmospheric as it looks, there’s a whiff of trash culture from the very first lines of the film May December, which inflamed the age-gap discourse since its Netflix release last weekend and has already garnered accolades for Riverdale’s Charles Melton as best supporting actor. Our first introduction to Gracie, the arch, lispy housewife played by Julianne Moore, is in her airy kitchen; anticipating the arrival of a famous actor, she off-handedly recalls her own meeting with Judge Judy.

Related: May December review – Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman potent in Highsmithian drama

Off-handed is Gracie’s way – she’s prolific at the brag or barb wrapped in tissue paper. So, too, is the film, directed by Todd Haynes from a screenplay by Samy Burch, which summarily reveals its conceit through a series of overly deferential questions and strained niceties. Gracie’s husband Joe (Melton) is chiseled, smooth-faced and diffident, in noticeable contrast to her wrinkles and brittle temperament. The famous actor Elizabeth (an excellent Natalie Portman) is visiting the couple and their three children because she is playing Gracie in a movie about their headline-grabbing relationship, which began when she was 36, he 12, and both worked at a pet store.

It’s an intriguing set-up: a fraught triangle of perception and projection, a fragile stasis shattered by pointed voyeurism and, most deliciously for a segment of social media, an ego battle between two deluded women played by two veteran movie stars. And yet May December is not the fiery, propulsive, or even particularly dramatic story that description might suggest. This is a frosty, sly film of feints, bathos (“I don’t think we have enough hotdogs”) and, more often than not, restraint. There’s a slippery quality to this creation, with its zaps of humor and gradual sadness, that defies easy classification – which, depending on your viewpoint, owes to the film’s dexterity or its emptiness.

In other words, May December is a strange, at times confounding mix, and a beguiling angle to approach our evergreen fascination with tabloid stories. “Now here is a woman with a lot more to her than I remember from the tabloids and our cultural memory,” Elizabeth tells Gracie of why she wants to play her, treading close to zeitgeisty feminist revisionism for maligned women of the 90s. Given the prestige bona fides of May December and Elizabeth’s lofty intentions, it’s perversely satisfying when the familiar screeches of trash culture enter the frame. Elizabeth, a soapy TV star cosplaying as serious actor, pores over ones fabricated for the movie – National Enquirer and People magazine types blaring the 90s saga of the “pet shop romance” (a typically sanitized headline) or offering “Gracie’s story: my baby behind bars!” Photos of Gracie in court, or with her newborn baby in prison (on child statutory rape charges) inform Elizabeth’s first (bad) imitations of Gracie – her pout, her posture and, in one standout scene in which Elizabeth visits the dingy pet shop, her imagined pose of transgressive ecstasy.

The tabloid arcana clearly reference the much-publicized case of Mary Kay Letourneau, the Seattle-area teacher who, aged 34 in 1996, seduced her 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau. Like Gracie, Letourneau spent several years in prison, married a then of-age Fualaau upon release, and continued to insist on absolution through true love. Like Fualaau, Joe is of Asian descent and became a father before he entered high school. May December distances itself enough from the Letourneau story (the movie is set in Tybee Island, Georgia, for one) to release it from the burden of imitation or verisimilitude that distracts from almost every other recreation of headline stories or (in)famous figures. Still, the lurid details of the Letourneau story lurk just beneath the surface of May December, which is catnip for anyone who ever imagined what happened when the spotlight, sordid and skewed though it was, faded. Myself included – I’ve been interested in the Letourneau case since I was a child perusing magazines at the supermarket checkout; in the years since, I’ve been liable to click on any number of Letourneau updates online (that Fualaau and Letourneau separated in 2019; that she died of cancer in 2020; that their younger daughter is pregnant at the age of 24.)

The story is perversely, obviously fascinating and, in May December, such fascination is corrosive, even risible. Elizabeth serves as the audience proxy, searching for a psychological explanation for Gracie’s behavior and finding only red herrings and, though she doesn’t realize it, abasement. Elizabeth seeks to crack Gracie’s code (and thus, admiration), Gracie seeks preservation of her perfect facade, Joe to be left with the Monarch butterflies he nurtures in peace. The fragile stasis cracks, but never fully crumbles; the trio eye each other warily, and only Melton’s Joe, accurately described by many reviews as the film’s heart, breaks, if just a little.

Instead, May December inverts a public spectacle into a parade of private reflections – characters in mirrors, double images, skewed symmetry; Elizabeth imitating Gracie, Moore herself loosely imitating a real person; Joe, in his single greatest outburst of emotion, protesting that his life is not just a story to him, in a film loosely based on a real tabloid fixture. Even the dialogue in a climactic scene between Joe and Gracie – a private discussion that lays bare, just briefly, the central lie of their relationship – mirrors a real, genuinely disturbing news interview with Letourneau.

This has the appearance of depth, of poking around the puzzles of two intractable, highly un-self-aware women and one unchangeable crime and emerging with no pat conclusions. That partly explains the myriad reactions to it – some see it as a camp masterpiece, which even for its incorporation of trash culture and one-liners feels too flip for its sensitivity to Joe’s trauma, his stifled maturity, his inchoate sense of self and slumped shoulders. Others see an odd, affecting portrait of childhood abuse, echoing the vertigo of a reassessed grooming relationship seen in more straightforward sexual abuse films like HBO’s The Tale. Still others feel the movie doesn’t go far enough in delineating the wrongness of Gracie and Joe’s relationship – like Letourneau and Fualaau’s, framed in the media as at once as scandalous and romantic – and instead playing it for laughs. Netflix submitted it to the Golden Globes as a comedy.

None of these feel particularly right to me. May December strikes a number of hypnotic, strange, at times funny poses – I never knew where it was going – but never commits to a shape. Like many self-aware dives into cultural fascinations, it has the quixotic feel of chasing its own tail – an oddly bloodless circle of attention, delusion and fixation that ends up right where you’d expect, a hall of mirrors that glimpses the void but never fully leans in. Its restraint – its lack of answers or excuses for Gracie’s behavior – is a welcome respite from the tendency to psychoanalyze that has a chilling effect on the why that drove curiosity in the first place. It left me cold, though maybe that’s the antidote to a dark tabloid fascination. Sometimes there is no explanation, just an aftermath without winners.

  • May December is out now on Netflix