Todd Haynes' latest film fails to ignite. What's the point of setting up such a grungy nasty little tabloid scandal, complete with melodramatic music and Chekhov's hunting rifle, if you aren't going to truly mine the emotional gore? Instead, we get a limp, anaemic relationship drama, enlivened only by the occasional caustic barb from the matriarch (SALTBURN vibes, anyone?) but one that ultimately wastes great performances from its twin leads of Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman.
Moore stars as the deeply delusional and manipulative Gracie, now 60. She lives with her husband and three nearly grown kids. The twist is that Gracie, when 36, seduced aforementioned husband when he was ijust 13 (although British audiences may fail to grasp just how young a seventh grader is for most of the running time.) Over twenty years later there is no sign that Gracie realises that she has done anything wrong, and her husband seems to be living in a state of arrested development, more elder child than partner. So much so that I spent much of the film trying to figure out if Charles Melton was a bad actor or just directed to look simple.
The family's fake-we're-fine lives are upturned when Natalie Portman's TV actress comes to town to research an upcoming movie. In her own way, Portman's Elizabeth is just as fake and manipulative as Gracie, except she is more self-aware of why she is behaving the way she does. It's a great role for Portman who gets to show us her subtle manipulations. Portman also has a fantastic monologue straight to camera that is as good as anything she has done since BLACK SWAN.
I just felt that all of this was wasted in a script by Samy Burch that fails to really go as nasty and melodramatic as it could've done. I wanted more about how a young abused child comes to realise he was taken advantage of, his life thwarted. I wanted more of the kids' reactions to being raised in this weird set-up. I wanted twisted queer frissons between Gracie applying lipstick to Elizabeth. I was waiting for something, anything to happen, and all I got was a tease. Chekhov's rifle failed to fire.
MAY DECEMBER is rated R and has a running time of 113 minutes. It played Cannes and London 2023.