The opening credits for MAY DECEMBER play over a melodramatic score of insistent, skittery chords. Those chords will return, but at moments that to us seem banal, yet in the psyche of the December part of the cast, Gracie Yoo, played by the inimitable Julianne Moore, they signal a worldview not so much at odds with reality as toying with it while bending it to her will. Early on, she opens her refrigerator during a barbecue and frets that there aren’t enough hot dogs. Cue the chord of doom. For her, it is. For director Todd Haynes, it is the perfect vehicle to refract the subjective nature of reality through his trademark style of heightened visual cues, dramatic inflection points, and a whiff of camp that emphasizes an artificiality that has more immediacy than mere reality. The soft cinematography may evoke the warmth of home and hearth, but the story is that of zero-sum brinkmanship (brinkwomanship?) that spares no one.
The story centers on Gracie and Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), an actress of middling success who is pinning her hopes for career advancement on playing a younger version of Gracie in an indie film. Gracie, a baker of cakes and maker of home for her much younger husband, Joe (Charles Melton), and their three children, has a past that moves some neighbors to leave neatly wrapped packages of feces on her doorstep. And moves producers to make films. Elizabeth’s follows a made-for-television effort, about how she and Joe got together almost a quarter of a century ago.
Gracie welcomes Elizabeth, who wants to know what makes Gracie tick, into her home and her life with smiles and hugs and Elizabeth reciprocates. Both women have a great deal riding on the outcome of this encounter, neither woman is coming from a place that could be called, even tangentially, altruistic. In this climate, sincerity is a transactional commodity. As Elizabeth asks questions and observes without comment the complicated family dynamics, including those of Gracie’s still confounded ex (D.W. Moffett, and her damaged, aggressively needy son (Cory Michael Smith) from that union, Gracie tries to drive the narrative with politely terrifying firmness, and Elizabeth quietly absorbs the glaring inconsistences with a practiced charm that smacks of an equally determined ruthlessness. The tug-of-war, eventually embroils Joe. Confronted by having someone finally ask him how he felt all those years ago when the inappropriate relationship began, and how he feels now, he begins ask those questions of himself, and drawing conclusions that unsettle him. They also rouse him from the sleepwalking life he’s been living with a woman who makes him the center of her life, excluding everyone and everything else.
This is a master class in acting not just from Portman and Moore, the which we expect from such goddesses of the art, but also from Melton. In a scene of stark psychological drama and, yes, melodramatic underpinnings, Gracie shows Elizabeth how she puts on her makeup, moving from demonstration to applying it directly onto the actress’ face while recounting select memories from her life, and almost imperceptibly flinching when her mother is brought up. It is a battle of wits and a battle of wills played with flawless irony as each comes away with a different interpretation of what just happened, an interpretation that is not what the audience registers as the women gaze at their reflection, i.e. directly at us, while contemplating their war paint.
As for Melton, a sweet and shy man still evincing the unsteadiness of a boy navigating an adult world that is too subtle for his innocence. The dramatic tension between Gracie and Elizabeth, waiting to see who will crack first, is nothing compared to the slowly burgeoning realizations, and questioning, that Joe undergoes when he experiences another grown woman taking an interest in him. Melton finds both the farce and tragedy while staying true to both as Joe has a pot-fueled heart-to-heart with his 18-year-old son (Gabriel Chung), weeping with the pride he feels in how he has turned out, and terror that he has ruined his life. This is a deceptively simple performance, but one that is just as complex as those of either Portman or Moore, and Melton is flawless.
MAY DECEMBER is an emotional thriller of the first order. A grotesquely fascinating battle of wills between two formidable women, neither of whom have any doubts about their choices. Take nothing for granted with these characters who do not fit reassuringly into neat pigeon-holes. Or genres.