“You better do it well, because it really makes a difference in how it looks.” Gracie (Julianne Moore) says this to Elizabeth in Todd Haynes’s May/December. Apparently, she’s talking about arranging maraschino cherries on a pineapple upside-down cake. But, from the lips of a registered sex offender to the ears of a famous Hollywood actress in the kitchen of sunny Savannah, Georgia, there’s sure to be something deeper beneath this basic baking tip. Their pairing is so unusual that their commentary can’t even be anywhere near surface level.
You see, they’re making a movie about a local woman’s headline-grabbing affair with a middle-school student, and Elizabeth is playing the lead role. Gracie is the inspiration for that role. This suave middle-aged mother with strawberry-blonde hair graced the covers of pulpy grocery store tabloids in the early 1990s.
The reason for all the commotion? Her criminal affair with a seventh-grade student (and, later, the birth of her children with him). The couple – now married – have carved out a cozy niche among antebellum homes and Spanish moss, away from the harsh spotlight of the media frenzy. Now, in the opinion of those who don’t want to pay attention, some loud-mouthed Hollyweird celeb has arrived to break the facade.
It is not surprising that the people are nervous about Elizabeth’s arrival. It’s been decades since whatever happened…happened. Why dig it all up again? Although she won’t admit it to anyone but herself, this is undoubtedly Gracie’s position. She and her husband, Joe (Charles Melton), have established as much normalcy and security as possible for their family in the wake of such controversy. Alas, as is the duty of any good (albeit clever) housewife in the Hostess City of the South, Gracie welcomes her guest with open arms, tight lips, and a wary attitude.
Whether it comes from the film’s unsettling score, its jarring interludes with horror-creeping close-ups or all those backhanded pleasantries exchanged, the world of May December has an energy that Feels unstable. It was difficult for me to get over the feeling that, at any moment, someone or something was going to be shocked.
To some extent, daily life in wealthy suburbs can feel like this. However, this goes beyond a little imagination. After all the polite conversation, fake smiles and please-and-thank-yous, Elizabeth’s discovery of Gracie’s troubled past starts to seem worse than bad behavior. This sounds dangerous.
As Elizabeth searches for the most honest angle to embody the role of Gracie, Gracie works to ensure she is never found. With very subtle shades of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona – not to mention the UR-text for this type of film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo – May December takes what we know of the blonde/brunette doppelganger. I know and uses it to tell a story about telling a story.
While Haynes’s interests here are certainly not as nightmarish as those of Lynch or Bergman (and much less grotesque than those of Hitchcock), he still uses the visual motif of hair color (as well as lots of reflections, twins, and imitations). Let’s explore the age-old idea of dark doubles. To drive the point home).
Haynes also used this hair color thing in her 2015 Carol. Age difference romance too. And yet, if ever there was an anti-Carol, it would be May December. Haynes tackles similar themes in both films, but this time around the approach is far more vague than dull. Forget about the suave, literary aesthetic Haynes so beautifully brought to life for a pair of star-crossed lovers in mid-century New York. Their latest offerings take the kind of outrageously brutal take on sexual promiscuity often found in Lifetime movies. I don’t even mean to use that Lifetime label as an insult. Until recently, the network was one of the only places I could find shamelessly sexual, hilariously campy melodramas en masse. However, the tide is changing – and it’s not just Haynes’ work.
From film historian Karina Longworth’s recent delve into the erotic thrillers of the 80s and 90s on her podcast “You Must Remember This” to Adrian Lyne and her underrated (and, I must say, unceremoniously discarded) Like the return of the great artists of the genre. Hulu’s release of Deep Water, May December, fits perfectly into a growing trend. At the same time I feared the sub-genre was dying out, Haynes has used his auteur status to promote the erotic thriller – and in doing so, satisfy modern audiences’ very real thirst for the sinister, seedy, seductive tale. Has extinguished. This is one of his strongest, most intoxicating works to date.
To be clear, Haynes is not some provocateur hoping to revive the film’s sordid genre merely for shock value. May December is even more complex, more layered, more intelligent than that. Above all, it is a thrilling exploration of the nuances of truth. The film’s couple Elizabeth and Gracie can be seen as two sides of a scandalous story. This is the version that Gracie tells – her truth, no matter how honest or dishonest – and it is the objective truth that Elizabeth wants. The story that is being told and the reality of what actually happened are not the same. Hiding, threats, deception, bottled up emotions… all of these come at the expense of protecting the truth in some way or the other. Remember: When telling a life story, you better do it well, because what really matters is how it unfolds.