American director Todd Haynes returns to the Cannes Croisette with the recently Netflix-acquired May December, a Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore two-hander that asks the question: what if Brian De Palma remade Persona but as a comedy?
Elizabeth (Portman) is an actor preparing to play the role of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore), a woman infamous for her relationship with her now -husband Joe (Charles Melton). For non-Americans unfamiliar with the US school system, it might take some time for us to understand the gravity of her crime. She was 36 and he was 13 at the time their relationship was discovered. Despite the fact that her infamy tore apart her family and led to her being jailed, Gracie has rebuilt a comfortable middle-class existence, marrying Joe and bringing up their three children to adulthood (their twins are graduating high school in the course of the film).
Somewhat bizarrely, Gracie has agreed to spend time with Elizabeth and answer her questions, knowing that the film will no doubt turn the spotlight once more upon her. So, Elizabeth shadows Gracie as she goes to her flower-arranging class and puts on her makeup, as well as interviewing her first husband and son by her first marriage. On one level, Gracie is the demonised woman who still receives parcels of excrement through the post and is unable to run her cake-making business without the charity of a few friends. But on the other hand, she is a paedophile who has robbed her husband of agency and of a normal childhood, something he is beginning to realise as he sees his own children come-of-age.
The question Haynes is interested in is, to quote Anthony Trollope and the Pet Shop Boys: “Can you forgive her?” And if you can, why? One reason is perhaps because it’s Moore. The same way Travis Bickle is a lot more palatable – and indeed an icon – because he’s played by Robert De Niro. We see the license Elizabeth gets because of her TV show Norah’s Ark. People are quite happy to open up to her about traumatic events because of the shine of celebrity. The other reason is that – as expressed by the title – there is a cultural template for this kind of relationship. There was actually a whole spate of these films in the 1970s as craggies like Charles Bronson and William Holden fell in love with young hippie girls. See, for that matter, Manhattan: a film I love, but which now looks like the Citizen Kane of gaslighting.
And what is the role of art in all this? How can it depict Gracie without contributing to her infamy or apologising for her behaviour? When questioned about why her film should be made, Elizabeth responds with the bullshit answer that “It’s a very human story”. Even Bambi is a very human story. Aren’t such situations rooted in a transgressive version of rom-com style love? Isn’t our fascination whether in a Todd Haynes movie or a TV movie (one has already been made) or in the magazine stories, which serve as neat exposition drops, essentially all the same morbid curiosity?
Haynes’ strategy is to maintain an aloof irony, helped by an over-the-top score borrowed from Joseph Losey’s The Go Between, which underlines such pronouncements as “We might not have enough hot dogs”. May December isn’t on the acerbic level of Todd Solondz’s Happiness, which it thematically resembles. But the strategy only goes so far. Irony has a wearying effect after a while, ultimately leading to a flattening of the ethical landscape so that by the end of it we can’t help but feel they’re all as bad as each other.
The 76th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 16-27 May. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty