Tag Archives: Julianne Moore

May December -Complex Handling of a Tabloid Topic

May December deals with the kind of tabloid-type topic you’d expect to see in a Lifetime movie or, going further back,  a TV movie of the week. The kind of movie that superficially condemns the scandalous behavior of its characters while titillating the audience.

Now imagine such a topic as handled by a director known for his insightful and complex approach such as Todd Haynes, and you have May December, a made for Netflix production. To be clear, May December does titillate the audience, but in a way that’s intended to make you feel guilty or at least uncomfortable for this.

May December is loosely based on a real incident of a teacher’s affair with a student.

Gracie (Julianne Moore) is a woman whose life has been defined by a scandal. When she was in her thirties, she seduced a 7th grade kid named Joe (Charles Melton), for which she went to prison. However, after she was released, Grace and Joe married and had kids. As the setting is a respectable suburb in Savannah, Grace’s standing in the community is ambiguous at best.

A strange detail to note is that the family, apparently supported by modest local jobs, somehow live in a grand home that could be called a mansion on a scenic lake. Perhaps Grace inherited it or had family money? Characters living above their realistic means is a common trope of movies and television but doesn’t really fit into  this otherwise more sophisticated film.

Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is an actress who is playing Grace in a movie. She arranges a visit, staying in town, so she can get to know the family and learn more about the character.

May December is all about the troubled and ambivalent interactions between characters, especially between Grace and Elizabeth but also between Grace and Joe and between Joe and Elizabeth. There are also the nuanced interactions between Grace and Joe and their just-grown children.

In some ways, Grace still treats Joe like a child, even while insisting he was “in charge” in their earlier relationship. Considering his reticent and basically passive nature, this interpretation seems unlikely. Joe retreats to his hobby of raising monarch butterflies, which no doubt has symbolism as he seems trapped in a situation he fell into while still a child.

Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is a strange case herself. She seems more fascinated and turned on than shocked by Grace and Joe’s history. In one scene, she visits the back room of the pet shop where the couple used to meet and re-enacts a seduction scene.

As with most Todd Haynes films, May December doesn’t answer many questions definitively. All of the characters are troubled and we can’t necessarily trust any of their motives. Elizabeth may have designs on Joe, but to what end remains unclear. Is she an actor who is obsessively dedicated to her craft or more of a voyeur reveling in other people’s scandals? Or perhaps the film is suggesting that these two are not mutually exclusive.

Grace may have been sexually assaulted by a brother growing up, which may partly explain her own behavior. She denies this ever happened and we are left wondering.

The film is alternately dramatic, tragic, and comedic, not giving us a chance to fall into a predictable mood. Haynes directed one of my favorite films, Safe, which came out in 1995 and also starred Julianne Moore.  Like May December, it deals with some heavy issues -in this case, health and how the world can make some people ill- in a disturbing and ambiguous manner. May December is a similarly complex exploration of issues that tend to get oversimplified.

See my review of Safe

Safe (1995), When life Makes You Sick

Safe is one of those low-key films it’s easy to miss even though it received quite a bit of acclaim when it was released in 1995. Directed by Todd Haynes, this is a stark and understated psychological drama starring Julianne Moore as a suburban housewife who becomes increasingly distraught over symptoms and chemical sensitivity.

Safe is the kind of film that raises more questions than it answers. Anyone who suffers from an autoimmune disease such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or a host of other conditions) may identify with Carol. On the other hand, you can also interpret her situation in a more existentialist way. Is Carol actually physically sick, or is she suffering from a kind of societal malaise that leaves supposedly successful people feeling empty and at odds with an increasingly alienating environment?

In the early scenes of Safe, Carol is shown shopping, having coffee with friends, and driving her Mercedes around nondescript, affluent suburban California neighborhoods. When she first describes her symptoms, she mentions being under stress. Yet her life contains very little stress, at least as conventionally defined. What we can see is that she moves through her life in a robotic way, barely connecting with her unsympathetic husband and her friends from the gym. Her perpetually blase affect is contrasted not by her bland surroundings but by references to the more dangerous and passionate wider world, as when her son excitedly talks about gangs or she hears a fundamentalist preacher on the radio.

As Carol’s symptoms worsen and she doesn’t get help from doctors, she visits Wrenwood, a retreat center that’s run by a self-help guru named Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman). Wrenwood, like Carol’s illness, is hard to pin down. Friedman’s new age rhetoric is meant to be inspirational but it also emphasizes that people are responsible for their own conditions. Is Dunning helping people reach their potential and heal themselves or is he a huckster taking their money while mouthing cliches? As with Carols’s illness, you have to make up your own mind.

At one point, Carol makes a halting, confused speech about how much Wrenwood has helped her. Julianne Moore does a superb job of playing a character whose words are often incongruous with what she’s actually feeling. Soon even the isolated retreat center isn’t sufficient escape from the encroaching pollution and chemicals as Carol starts to believe that fumes from the nearest highway are reaching her.

As Safe has little in the way of a linear plot, I don’t think discussing the ending really qualifies as a spoiler. The final scene (from which I’ve posted a clip from YouTube) reveals that Carol has retreated still further, to an isolated igloo where she’s alone, breathing through a gas mask. The final scene has her repeating “I love you” into the mirror with an utterly hollow expression that belies this affirmation.

Safe, as you can probably gather, isn’t an uplifting film. It has a protagonist with an undefined problem with no apparent solution. With such murky material, I feel entitled to my own interpretation, which centers on the film’s title.

I actually started thinking about this film partly because in 2020 we’re living in a time when the word “safe” is repeated endlessly and people are widely concerned about symptoms, even if from a virus rather than the more nebulous environmental contaminants faced by Carol. The whole idea of being safe brings up the eternal dilemma of living in a world that is inherently unsafe and suggests that when we place too much value on safety it turns us into prisoners at odds with the very fabric of life. The latter, of course, is only one possible interpretation. To me, the film is elegantly ambiguous, leaving us to take from it what we will.