Julianne Moore’s character in this film states, “Insecure people are a threat,” and she speaks from experience. Director Todd Haynes brings an entertaining and sophisticated drama to Cannes, reminiscent of Highsmith’s style with its intimate and malicious tone. Could it be a darker version of Haynes’ previous film, Carol? The movie depicts an unspoken rivalry between two women, portrayed by Moore and Natalie Portman, who have developed a powerful animosity during a crucial time in their lives. Periodically, Haynes presents us with close-up shots of their faces side by side as they examine themselves and each other in the mirror, evoking a sense of Bergman-esque suspicion.
Moore portrays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a dominant and anxious woman in her signature style, who does indeed deliver the expected Moore-esque scene of self-pity. Gracie has chosen to combine her last name with that of her significantly younger spouse Joe (Charles Melton), and has placed her own surname first. She resides in a luxurious manner in the affluent city of Calabasas, California, but it is possible that her husband’s income funds their lifestyle; Gracie’s only source of income is a small business selling elaborate cakes in the style of Martha Stewart to her neighbors.
Gracie and Joe’s marriage is based on a scandal involving a sexual relationship that captured the attention of tabloids and both disgusted and intrigued the entire nation. Gracie, who was in her 30s and already married, seduced Joe when he was just 13 years old. This resulted in Grace becoming pregnant, serving a short jail sentence, and being registered as a sex offender. Despite these challenges, their relationship endured and they now have three children – two who are about to finish high school and one in college. Gracie’s children from her previous marriage are the same age as Joe, with the most troubled being Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), who has been deeply affected by the whole ordeal.
Everyone is abuzz with the news that there will be a sensitive, independent film about Gracie’s life. This is a stark contrast to the crass re-enactments on tabloid TV that we catch glimpses of. The role of Gracie will be portrayed by Elizabeth Berry (played by Natalie Portman), a highly respected actor who was educated at Juilliard. Berry is looking to take a career leap away from the silly vet television show that brought her fame. Gracie’s situation of having a parallel self in the media world is similar to Moore’s character in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. In the film, Moore plays a struggling actress who lands the lead role in a remake of a movie that her late mother once starred in.
Elizabeth arrives and spends time with the family, acting like they are her close friends. She asks personal questions in order to fully embody the character she is playing, even going as far as copying Gracie’s hairstyle, mannerisms, makeup, and slight lisp. Elizabeth believes she can redeem the family and turn their negative reputation into fame, using her own celebrity status. She hopes her portrayal of Gracie will be sympathetic. As Elizabeth becomes closer to Joe, who is the same age as her, her intense preparation for the role leads to a strong romantic connection with him. She believes she can rescue him from his unfulfilling relationship with a controlling and domineering woman.
There are some issues with the story. For instance, it is odd that Elizabeth never inquires about Gracie’s time in prison, considering how significant those scenes would be. However, Todd Haynes presents May December with a calm and clever approach, and Julianne Moore portrays her dysfunctional character in an engaging manner. Natalie Portman also has a standout moment where she teaches acting to Gracie’s high school drama class, discussing how intimate scenes can evolve into genuine pleasure for those involved. “Are you feigning pleasure or suppressing it?” In this case, the pleasure is genuine.