The advantage May December has in territories outside the US is that few will know the real-life events the film was reportedly inspired by. We are therefore free to give ourselves over to the twists and turns of what is, in essence, the Todd Haynes version of a Channel 5 afternoon TV movie: a knowingly soapy and sunny intrigue about the repurposing of life as art that - with a perverse elegance typical of this filmmaker - ushers us towards the conclusion that movies and moviemakers are trash and trouble. Their representative on screen is Natalie Portman's Elizabeth, a TV actress who's travelled to a quiet American backwater to stay with (and study) Gracie Atherton-Yoo and her husband Joe (Julianne Moore and Charles Melton), soon to be seen as subjects of the based-on-true-events feature Elizabeth is all set to star in. The thirty-year age gap between Moore and recent Riverdale graduate Melton hints at the film-within-a-film's sensational story: Gracie seduced Joe when she was in her mid-thirties (and married) and he was in his early teens, a source of understandable local outrage. Yet here they are, some twenty years down the line: married with children, in their own kind of love, living peaceably (despite the occasional box of shit put through their letterbox by vexed neighbours) and faced with an outsider hellbent on prying into their past. Elizabeth, for her part, is making a movie, but she's also making mischief - just playing, in two of that word's meanings: opening up old wounds, poking a well-manicured finger in, stirring things up. Long-suppressed emotions start to rise to the surface; it wouldn't be a Todd Haynes picture without them. We, meanwhile, are invited to consider what's most deplorable: the age gap between Gracie and Joe, or the vast chasm separating Elizabeth of Hollywood from messy everyday reality.
The spilling over of troubled hearts may be a Haynes commonplace, but in most other respects, this is an unusual project for the director to have taken on. May December isn't written by him (the credited screenwriters are Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik), which would normally indicate some distance from the material; and while thoughtfully framed by Christopher Blauvelt - especially so whenever mirrors come into play - it doesn't ever look like much, the movie's own way of siding with reality. What makes it seem far more than a work-for-hire is the deep engagement with the act and art of performance. Front and centre, exhibit 1a: the most assured performance of Portman's entire career, as a star trying her darnedest to make people fall for her wherever she goes. It's a performance with elements of Julia Roberts' recent public appearances in the mix - great personal charm poised atop unnervingly vast reserves of steeliness - but it's Roberts (and the stardom Roberts represents) pushed to a dangerous extreme: acting as insincerity, psychopathy and - in a case such as this - predation. Elizabeth comes this way to swallow Gracie, Joe and all of their experiences right up; she does so with a kilowatt smile, but there's still blood on her lips. Crucially, this isn't another Black Swan, where you felt the darkness being imposed on Portman by an overbearing director; instead, Haynes allows his leading lady to make choices - calculation is just what he's looking for here - and Portman makes exactly the right ones to throw us. (She and Elizabeth get their most accurate review when Joe tells them: "It's hard to tell what you naturally think about this.") Elsewhere, Haynes picks up on peculiar tremors of doubt undermining a central relationship you feel really could be interpreted any which way; what Anatomy of a Fall does for a mysterious death, May December does for a longstanding love affair/amour fou/grooming masterclass. Melton makes Joe a nice guy, but also heavy, slow and passive with it, as if still trapped beneath the puppy fat of adolescence: stunned by what happened to him at 13, and newly baffled at having to watch his own kids, who seem so much more mature than him, leaving a nest he cannot. (The caterpillars he keeps as pets appear key to his whole character: they get to evolve, where he hasn't.) The suspicion ghosting around within the film's frames thus leads us back to Gracie Atherton-Yoo: might she only have stayed with this (in most respects) mismatched partner - might she have only taken his name - solely to ward off the more unseemly accusations?
Well, maybe. The objective reality May December presents us all with is that Joe and Gracie are comparatively happy at the start of the film, and less so at the end, and that this unhappiness is a direct consequence of the renewed battle for control of their narrative they find themselves caught up in: certain parties trying to protect themselves and their loved ones, others trying to get the juice and the dirt, others still - like opportunistic local musician Georgie (Cory Michael Smith) - using the arrival of the Hollywood circus to try and negotiate a better life (or role) for themselves. Positively thumped along by composer Marcelo Zarvos's riff on the Michel Legrand score for 1971's The Go-Between, it's another of this year's movies to feel informed in some way by the bruising tos-and-fros of online reputation management: gossipy, but not idly so; spiky; entertainment with an edge, well aware that one person's story is another person's life. Haynes, for his part, appears in complete control throughout. He accepts the seriousness of the allegations these characters make about one another - and you could easily imagine a more straightforward thriller retelling of this episode, leaning into the ominously cambered roof Joe sometimes hangs out on, and the shotgun we witness Gracie the hunter taking into the woods at one point. But as a gay man working in the field of showbusiness, he too can't resist making at least a little mischief along the way. Clock homemaker Gracie telling her offspring "you try going through life without a scale, see how that works out" - campest line of the year, by several spangled furlongs - or homewrecker Elizabeth inviting Joe in to fix her broken nebuliser. As Haynes has sensed, this is an odd little story that reflects on the odd creatures we are and the odd things we do in the name of love and self-preservation. People adapt, adjust, get quietly on with their lives - but the cinema doesn't and can't: it has to turbocharge it all, make a racket, make a scene. You may well come away from May December royally entertained, but also convinced that movies and many of those who make them are uniquely ill-qualified to document anything so modest as daily reality. Thank heavens we have creatives like Haynes around to keep them on the right track, and steer them in the direction of such complex, rewarding truths.
May December is now screening in selected cinemas.