As 2023 comes to a close and award season begins to ramp up, we often find ourselves looking back on the year and the drama it inevitably brings. With celebrities (from A-listers to viral tweets, and everyone in between) being scrutinized and canceled for their actions, it might be past time to take a long, hard look at our relationships with scandals and the real people behind them.
May December, starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, and Charles Melton, is the latest narrative feature from iconic queer director Todd Haynes. This velvety, twisty film – now streaming on Netflix – follows an actress as she studies an infamous couple for an upcoming film, exposing the fault lines of their relationship.
Director: Todd Haynes
Release Date: December 1, 2023 (Netflix)
Based on true events, May December’s central couple Gracie (Moore) and Joe (Melton) were a tabloid sensation who made waves for their notorious start. Joe was only a seventh grader when 36-year-old Gracie began a relationship with him. She even gave birth to their first child while in jail for statutory rape. Now, decades later, Elizabeth (Portman) is doing character research to play Gracie in an upcoming biopic about her life. What follows is the decay of boundaries between the three as the melodrama unfolds and trauma resurfaces.
Seemingly happy couple Joe and Gracie now live on an isolated island in Georgia. With their youngest two children about to graduate high school, the two are preparing for a new era of their lives to begin. Elizabeth’s arrival into their home interrupts this and forces Joe and Gracie to unravel the tumultuous foundation of their relationship, which balances on ignoring the very real sexual trauma endured by Joe throughout their entire time together. While the emotional playing field of May December underscores the blunt harshness of realizing one’s own trauma, it also introduces a queer duplicity replicating the dichotomies of real life versus image, the tabloid versus reality.
These themes and emotional revealings exist in May December’s visual language. Following in the tradition of earlier films like Persona (Ingmar Bergman), May December messes with assumptions of power and personality by showing the malleability of personhood. As an actress, Elizabeth is concerned with “playing” Gracie – not to tell the truth about her as a human necessarily but as a way to further her own career. But to play her means that, on some level, she has to become her. Haynes and Portman stylistically represent this using mirrors (an obvious stand-in to show “double”) and bringing Gracie and Elizabeth closer together in appearance.
In some of these mirror scenes, we see Elizabeth watching and reflecting Gracie’s looks, voice, and eventually even her treatment of Joe. Elizabeth uses him to get what she wants, and unknowingly even helps him free himself from his own repressed understanding of his trauma. In May December’s climactic moments, Elizabeth and Joe sleep together before she cruelly tells him “This is what grown-ups do,” humiliating and infantilizing him, and reminding him that even though he’s the same age as Elizabeth, his grooming and sexual abuse at the hands of Gracie has stunted him from experiencing any normalcy in “grown-up” relationships. With this revelation – that Joe has been deeply traumatized by a manipulative woman – he confronts her about the things they never talked about: their relationship and its infamous start.
Once Elizabeth gets what she wants from Gracie and Joe, she’s completed her transformation into Gracie. Like the monarch butterflies that Joe raises, she sheds “Elizabeth” and becomes “Gracie.” But, hilariously, the film concludes with Elizabeth on her movie set as “Gracie,” and the big reveal is that the film is a pretty sleazy adaptation of Gracie and Joe’s relationship. In this final moment, Haynes rips the veil off of Elizabeth and her motives while also turning the audience from simply viewers to participants: we must reevaluate what we think of these characters and the way that they (and us as viewers) engage with the trauma of individuals in the media. Gracie is no longer the only bad guy: Elizabeth is as well.
Overall, May December is yet another gorgeous film by one of the best current filmmakers. With its engaging acting (in particular, I’ve seen lots of buzz for Melton’s heartbreaking performance of Joe!) and dreamy visuals, May December is one of the best films of the year. Catch it now on Netflix!