Natalie Portman shadows Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’ salaciously entertaining metafictional psychodrama about an actress researching for a role in a film about a tabloid sex scandal.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2023
“In Todd Haynes’s dark comedy ... Julianne Moore plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, a former pet-store worker whose affair with an adolescent boy, Joe, created a media frenzy in her middle-class community in Savannah, Georgia. The story begins more than two decades after the scandal, as an indie film is to be made about Gracie and Joe, who’s now 36. The key events are quickly established by Haynes, either by including images of tabloid front-pages, or Gracie’s own telling—we discover the two dutifully married and Gracie had Joe’s baby in prison.
Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, the actress who’s to portray the younger Gracie. Elizabeth arrives at Gracie’s family home to shadow her in her daily chores, to observe and later imitate her subject’s gestures, but also, increasingly, to probe the murkier depths of her affair and psyche—which turns out to be near impossible.
Fiction and fact, self-delusion and self-truth are given a dangerous edge in Haynes’s film, which, ultimately, isn’t so much about Gracie’s actions as it is about society’s appetite for demonstrations of compunction, even where none is felt. If society demands its martyrs, Gracie both dazzles and irritates by refusing to be one. With the choice of one fair, blonde actress, and another as a feistier brunette, Haynes invites comparisons to Bergman’s Persona (1966). But whereas there’s certainly a parasitic power play between the two women, in its edgy and satirical tone, the film’s more akin to Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995). It convincingly shows how a woman can be both prey to vicious societal impositions and wholesale fairytales of marital life, and in profound denial about her own predatory behaviour. The lines of what is truly moral are constantly crossed in May December, a film that resolutely prods media—and cinema’s—complicity in feeding the machinery of lies.” — Ela Bittencourt, Sight and Sound