Take a story rooted in a ’90s tabloid romance, add Oscar winners Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, purée it in a post-modern blender, and season to taste with a delightful mix of camp artifice, classic melodrama, and earnest soul-searching. The heady concoction is Todd Haynes’ May December, an intoxicating reflection on identity and authenticity that premiered Saturday night in Cannes and enjoyed a big-ticket acquisition deal that started at $6 million and swiftly rose to $11 million. Netflix ended up with the winning bid, immediately dropping the steaming service squarely into this year’s awards-season conversation.
“My character is someone who transgresses—and how do we address that?” said Moore at the film’s press conference the morning after its late-night premiere. “An age gap is one thing. But a relationship between an adult and a child is something else entirely.”
Those with long memories for true-crime scandal will recall Mary Kay Letourneau, the 34-year-old schoolteacher whose 1996 statutory-rape love affair with a 12-year-old student led to pregnancy, prison, and a 14-year marriage. In Haynes’ fictionalized account, the transgressor is Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore), her student lover is Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), and their 1995 affair started in a Savannah pet shop storeroom when she was 36 and he was 13.
Now, 20 years later, long after the lurid headlines and jail time served (plus one cheesy made-for-TV movie that sensationalized their pariah status) Gracie and Joe are enjoying a settled Georgia life as their children get ready to graduate from high school, when in comes Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), star of hit TV show Norah’s Ark and the lead actor in an upcoming indie film based on Gracie and Joe. She wants research her role by spending time with Gracie and her family. “It’s a very complex and human story,” Elizabeth tells Gracie, dismissing the public’s tawdry prejudices and claiming that she wants Gracie to “be seen.” She’s seen, all right. The postman just delivered a piece of hate mail: a small box of shit.
Wrapped around all the lurid narrative threads is Haynes’s own keenly self-aware cinematic approach to genre—especially material that feels like a throughline in an afternoon soap opera. Soft-focus lenses, pointed dialogue peppered with cruel remarks, and, best of all, an overheated score (courtesy Marcelo Zavros) that recycles generous dollops of Michel Legrand’s hot-button soundtrack to Joseph Losey’s 1971 forbidden romance The Go-Between.
Best of all is Moore’s crafty way of infusing Gracie with a mix of genuine pathos and hilariously deadpan affectations. Not for nothing is Moore a perfect fit for the role, especially considering her early-career, Daytime Emmy-winning stint on As the World Turns in the mid-’80s. “This script had an amazing muscularity to it,” said Moore. “It was really deceptive because when you first read Sammy Birch’s script, it seems sort of simple. And then we all found, as we were working on it, it was just unbelievably intricate and intense and loaded and muscular. We all really leaned into that.”
With Birch’s story and under Haynes’s direction, Portman and Moore create a fascinating pas de deux of performative femininity, emotional vulnerability, and the limits of acceptable norms. It’s like Persona crossed with To Die For. “The reason this movie feels so dangerous is that people don’t know where anyone’s boundaries are,” says Moore. “And it feels scary.”
Portman agreed. “Performing femininity is a recurring theme in Todd’s films,” she said. “The whole film is so much about performance, and the different roles we play in different environments, for different people, for ourselves even.”
What’s at stake is the truth. But what does that really mean? Gracie is telling herself one set of facts, interpreting her romance in the best possible light. But she’s also hiding potentially dark secrets about what might have motivated her to get involved with a 13-year-old. Joe is both mature and naïve, as someone thrust into an adult role when he wasn’t ready, and balancing young fatherhood with his sheltered, skewed sense of love. Gracie is just as deluded about the truth of their relationship as he is. “You seduced me,” she tells him at one point. “I was 13!” he replies in disbelief.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth is busy watching audition tapes for the child role in her film. “The kids are cute,” she tells her producers. “But they’re not sexy enough.” Here is an actress so myopically focused on capturing Gracie’s essence that she raises doubts about what her own inner life might actually be—not to mention her own sense of propriety. “It’s the complexity, the moral gray areas, that are so interesting,” she remarks at a certain point—and you realize that her own filter might be dangerously out of whack.
It’s par for the course in a film where Gracie and Elizabeth—and increasingly Joe—start to question their own sense of self when it comes to loving and being loved in return. “I lost track of where the line is,” says one of them late in the film. “Who ever decides where the lines are?” comes the response.
“It’s incredible to get to be part of a film like this that has two such complex, really human characters that are full of all of kind of delicious conflicts,” said Portman. “Todd has that ability to create this incredible tension and incredible drama with very subtle strokes. It’s never pointing to what you’re supposed to feel. There’s a very restrained vision—but yet also the music is just so evocative and extreme in the best way. And there’s also such a sense of humor, too, with all of this depiction of a lot of darkness. There is always an ability to have a glimmer in the eye.”