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.