There’s a lot left unsaid in Todd Haynes’ May December. Characters are awkward, distant, disturbed by their pasts—unable to relate their despair in words. Sometimes, we’re gifted with an expression: Nathalie Portman sweeping aside her hair in an act of seduction. Julianne Moore’s pursed lips, a signal that she’s trying to hold herself together; and a cuckolded husband shuffling his iPhone on a cafe table. As we think we’re being allowed in, Haynes himself pulls back just subtly enough, and whatever we believed about these people once more becomes a mystery.
That’s the best thing about May December, a film that remains consistent with Haynes’ long interest in suburban American repression (not least because he is openly devoted to Douglas Sirk). Days after viewing, you’ll unconsciously remember a piece of dialogue or movement that satisfies our desire to piece these folks together. Then, as with all the guarded people you’ve encountered in life, you start to enter that uncomfortable realm of perplexity that requires straightforward answers. Only a second viewing, where you engage Haynes with these new questions, can decide whether May December is truly smart in its premise or just a confused experiment.
The film’s basic plot is itself about an experiment. Elizabeth Berry (Portman) is an actress who arrives in a small Georgia town to shadow Gracie (Julianne Moore) for an upcoming role based on a true scandal in which Moore’s character seduced an underaged boy. The two are happily married now, and twenty years on have a typical family life. Or so it seems, as Portman’s obsession with uncovering Gracie’s personality becomes fraught with drama, conflict, and at times, a form of sexual chemistry that arises when two people are curiously attempting to feel one another out.
The result is a magnificent ‘act-off’ (although perhaps not intentionally) between Moore and Portman, with the latter transforming into her sparring partner’s role. She wears the same make-up, pouts coldly, and speaks in a Southern Martha Stewart-golly-gosh drawl—with numerous scenes having both women stare at the other through a mirror. Gracie’s dysfunctional steeliness is charged by Elizabeth’s acts of mental seduction.
In a moment where Elizabeth is giving an acting class to a group of students, she addresses the paradox of performing in a sex scene: “Are you feeling pleasure, or pretending not to feel pleasure?” She asks. For a film that raises so many questions (and some are a clear result of the script’s laziness, not just its genius) this is perhaps this one that reveals what is going on beneath the surface. Are we interested in these people because we care, or because we think we should? To Haynes’ credit, or maybe even his film’s detriment, the answer lies within the viewer alone.