‘May December’ review: Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore make a meal out of Todd Haynes’ delicious story of infamy and obsession | Cannes
In 2015, Todd Haynes came to Cannes to premiere Carol that received rave reviews and an instant cult classic treatment. He came back to the French Riviera to launch other divisive films, but none of them were Carol. But the moment Haynes cast Natalie Portman and his muse Julianne Moore in May December, the filmmaker’s habitués around the world started drawing the inevitable comparisons despite the dissimilarities of both premises that in truth, is more akin to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve than his own works. The story was, above all, about Haynes getting two of our most celebrated actresses in a film about scandal, shame, and performance.
In that regard, May December delivers as nothing goes beyond Todd Haynes when directing high-caliber actresses opposite each other; if Carol is a story about women in love, May December is another story of obsession. The story starts with actress Elizabeth Berry (Portman), who is looking forward to beginning shooting her next independent film based on an old tabloid story about a woman named Grace Atherton-Yoo (Moore) who got involved in a relationship with 13-year-old Joe while in her 30s, shades of Mary Kay Letournau. Both are still married with kids to this day and accept to open their house to Elizabeth so she can conclude her research ahead of filming.
Where does a film about an actress becoming a character under the vision of Todd Haynes go? Haynes drops all our preconceived ideas on how he would tackle a project like this and goes for other ways by reinventing himself as a filmmaker. The original story is fueled by scandal, gossip, and never-ending drama despite the passage of time. That is the real reason behind Elizabeth’s self-serving games. To prepare for her role, she thinks that nothing is off limits; on the contrary, she allows herself every right to conduct thorough research — whether it is probable or out of line, she shows no signs of hesitation.
It’s not easy to say which part of Todd Haynes’ latest is the most surprising; is it his dialogue that continuously veer into camp, or is it the way he charges his film with a specific kind of jokes that proved to be a valid reason to cancel people in our time. Everything about May December is surprising and unlike recent Haynes films; from the grainy and relaxed Christopher Blauvelt lensing up to Marcelo Zarvos adaptation of Michel Legrand’s menacing and mysterious work.
Natalie Portman is a real star in May December, literally and figuratively; her Elizabeth goes from curious, to funny, to mysterious, to unabashed and has a range of different and overlapping complex emotions before she finally gets to become Gracie. Because of the tricky and constantly shifting tone of the film, Portman’s work is divine in its unpredictability that turns the wish of understanding her (or even the slight attempt at it) into a pleasurable experience as she is intrigued by the complexity and gray areas.
Julianne Moore continues to prove that she is our most fearless actress today by the way she never hesitates to cross the hardest paths. With any other actress, the current climate can be a decisive factor in accepting a part like this, and although there are no scenes featuring the events leading up to the public outrage, every interaction between the couple is transparent enough to take us back in time when it all happened, particularly when old wounds of uncertainty open. Moore is spectacular when she swings from hilarious moments to roaring breakdowns. As adult Joe, Riverdale alumni Charles Melton matches her beat for beat, allowing the viewer to go beyond the surface of a pretty man with a wild past who proves to be a worthy casting pick and an arresting discovery.
Grade : A-
This review is from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, playing in competition. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.