Cannes 2023: ‘May December’ Review

The FilmSoc Journal is back for the 76th edition of the largest film festival in France, delivering a look at the hits and misses of the 2023-24 season.

Elena Xiang reviews Todd Haynes’s May December, a dark comedy that explores notions of truth and performance in the age of social media and reality TV.

If you only know Todd Haynes from ‘Carol’, then ‘May December’ may not be the sensational, aesthetically pleasing lesbian drama you might expect. The tension between Julianne Moore’s neurotic middle-class housewife and Natalie Portman’s obsessive, self-absorbed actress is hysterical rather than sexual (except for one mirror makeup scene, which is used misleadingly in the poster above). From ‘Carol’ to ‘May December’, the setting changes from the 1950s Golden Age America, an Edward Hopper-style New York, to a modern-day gothic dipped in the colour of a fever dream in the suburb of Georgia.

The film leaks a sense of unreality from the very beginning, with its unbalanced exposure under the lake-side sunset, when Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) first came to visit Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her family during their backyard BBQ. Everything within that dreamy white house seems to ideally fit in the definition of middle class with a polo shirt-wearing husband, a frisky dog, and two carefree teenage children, almost too ideal to the point that this anamorphic peace brings out the same nauseousness that the audiences might feel from the unsettling ending of David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’.

What is hidden underneath this artificiality of happiness? Aside from some bizarre hints given away by the arbitrary zoom-in along with an abrupt intrusion of dramatic music (composed by Marcelo Zarvos, who had worked with Haynes in his ‘Dark Waters’), the audience would not be able to grasp the whole situation until the flash of some fragmented news report unravels an eventually retrievable reality: Gracie’s seemingly flawless family is based on a sex scandal that shocked all of America, when she had an extra-marital affair with a 13 year old, half-Korean boy Joe (Charles Melton), now her second husband, and was briefly sent to jail afterward. Decades later, this shocking incident is ready to be made into a film, giving Elizabeth, who will play Gracie in the movie, a legitimate reason to investigate Gracie’s personal life and ask intrusive questions.

Gracie’s attitude towards her annoying doppelganger-to-be is complicated. In one way, her need for attention is satisfied as a social being outside the scope of merely selling home-made cakes in her local community when this famous, charismatic actress is putting all her efforts into becoming her. In another way, the boundaries set by Gracie’s politeness and her ‘the past is in the past’ mindset are violently encroached upon by Elizabeth when she unsealed Pandora’s box, bringing out the family’s darkest history and interacting with every individual around her. The past is sometimes the most dangerous thing to look back at. ‘What could have been done’ is a degenerative mindset when one jumps from the retrospect of the past to a forced acceptance of the brutal reality.

For Joe, the present has always been an anaesthetic: as long as he proceeds to live in the ’perfect present‘, the regret of that life-changing decision (what could have been if he didn’t marry Gracie and went to college like everyone else) will not be able to chase up to him. As such, he refuses to grow up. In one hilarious rooftop scene when Joe’s son tries to teach him to smoke marijuana, audiences start to belittle this six feet male figure realising his fragility and naïveness: he jumps straight from a child to an adult, missing the stage of adolescence, which is key for one’s personality development. Although the scene of his dark, repressive Korean household that looks economically worse off may indicate part of the reason, the film doesn’t directly point out why Joe deviated halfway through growing up. His fragility retreats when the film approaches the end, and everything seems to return to the original track.

‘May December’ redefines what it means to be normal when every single character is on the verge of breaking down at any second and ready to perfectly collect themselves together in the next shot. This is especially obvious when Gracie’s first son Georgie, who appears as the typical problematic hippy who you’d imagined bankrupting in their 30s, turns out to be less edgy and much more grounded, even with a family. No narrative is reliable in the story anymore during the telling and retelling of Gracie’s past like a labyrinth.

Elizabeth, who initially represents a supposedly objective point of view as the authority of representation (the film), eventually slides into the mire of real life in her conscious two minutes-sex with Joe, trying to capture the exact feeling of Gracie in her past. Oftentimes, gazing represents a form of power. That’s why when Elizabeth first steps into Gracie’s life with the mere knowledge of public prejudice, the power dynamics between those two are like a cat-and-mouse game, with one trying to catch and the other trying to hide. However, the public intervention over an individual narrative is unavoidably limited, and the arrogance of blindly believing in one linear, detective-style explanation results in the distortion of the truth. What is the truth, anyway? ‘May December’ is a world deprived of the truth, left only with gaze, representation, and re-representation.

Elizabeth no longer holds her dominant stance when Gracie confidently cracks down the whole Freudian theory built through her weeks-long investigation. In fact, after all the sacrifice and devotion under the excuse of an immersive imitation, Elizabeth’s performance is no more enjoyable than a random soap opera when the on-set shooting scene at the end of the film is satirically repeated multiple times. ‘May December’ can be seen as a parody of American TV drama with too much intentionally cheap dialogue and dramatic actions. When we are consuming all the gossip from that far-away Hollywood, enjoying all the chit-chat about celebrities, are we really in control of the power of language or are we ruled over by an invisible authority? For Todd Haynes, the grand American-ness, the golden age of the entertainment industry celebrated with much nostalgia is very much built on a sickness, a pervert desire to peep and invade others privacy, and a misleading distortion of reality, and people profit endlessly from experimenting the boundaries of morality. It is the same American-ness fed by the Kardashians and Donald Trump; it is a life inseparable from drama.

With every conflict and climax, Haynes strategically reminds audiences of the existence of the ‘frame’. He may be trying to say something about the essence of cinema that states quite the opposite of Keats’s famous poem: in the world of mass mediation, truth and beauty are both too arbitrary to be taken seriously.

May December does not have a UK release date yet. Watch an official clip of the film from the Cannes Film Festival here:

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