Natalie Portman plays Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’ deliciously shapeshifting, saucily witty psychodrama “May December,” a mysterious “Russian Doll” of a film on identity and performance that reveals itself in mischievous doses. Or rather, Elizabeth Berry—a famous actress portrayed by Portman—plays Gracie Atherton-Yoo, Moore’s seemingly happily married character who was mixed up in a sex scandal back in the ‘90s.
And what a tabloid scandal it was… In her 30s at the time, Gracie—already married with children—had an illegal affair with a minor, the then 13-year-old Joe Yoo (Charles Melton as the adult Joe, in a swelling performance that slowly but surely steals the film). The two were caught, let’s say, in a compromising situation in a stock room of a pet shop, an incident that rocked the nation, and led to Gracie’s arrest and registration as a sex offender.
Two decades later, the couple seems happily married, with Gracie running a small-scaled baking business at home, leading a quiet life with three kids. Except, there’s simply a lot going on in their lives at the moment: two of their children are on the verge of graduating high school.
A Hollywood star (that is Portman’s Elizabeth) is on her way for an extended visit to research Gracie’s life for an upcoming indie in which she is the star. And if this weren’t enough, the family is still receiving hate-mail packages at their quaint Savannah home filled with feces.
It’s quite hilarious that the first interaction between the two women happens when Elizabeth hands off one such package to Gracie, having just arrived at their home and found the box at their doorstep.
Perhaps because of this bizarre ice-breaker, the two women start off tentatively. Always seeming in an otherworldly haze, Gracie wonders if Elizabeth is genuine in her intentions, or if the process is even going to help her prep for the role.
Elizabeth on the other hand carries herself with a calculated sense of poise and modesty at first, trying to ease the family into her process, joining them over dinners and shopping trips to earn their trust. But as the two women get tangled up and intertwined in eerie ways, they realize they are depositing more of themselves into one another than they have ever realized.
The abovementioned duality, amplified by an alarming score of piano keys and sixteenth notes, will naturally bring to mind suspenseful Hitchcockian thrillers, as well as Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” perhaps the ultimate film on the spiritual junction of two women with their iconic faces forever etched in our black-and-white subconscious.
Haynes knowingly plays with this analogy, especially during a searing passage when Gracie introduces Elizabeth to her own make-up routine. Portman and Moore don’t necessarily look alike, but thanks to Hayne’s provocative framing and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s grainy lens that softens the contours of the women’s respective images, it’s anyone’s guess where one ends and the other begins during this absorbing trickster of a scene.
As Haynes and scribe Samy Burch probe deeper into their respective, dissolving identities, other cinematic references come to mind; such as “Citizen Kane,” when Elizabeth strolls around town, interviewing everyone from Gracie’s ex to her former attorney, trying to grasp more about this enigmatic woman.
“Sunset Boulevard” also comes to mind most unexpectedly when Elizabeth suggests Gracie’s baking business seems to be doing well during an interview, her subject gently reveals that it’s only the same handful of people who are placing those orders. (Are those orders simply the equivalents of Norma Desmond’s fake fan letters?)
Perhaps a less obvious reference point—Robert Greene’s un-categorizable non-fiction film “Kate Plays Christine,” as teased in the opening graph—matters the most. In that film, Kate Lyn Sheil, portraying a real-life newscaster who killed herself on TV back in the 1970s, loses her grip on her own truth and reality the more she physically and psychologically tried to transform herself into Christine Chubbuck.
Portman’s Elizabeth—always a little actorly, intimidating and enchanting—experiences a similar evaporation out of her own body here, as she internalizes Gracie’s inability to process her life, assumes her slight lisp and even goes as far as seducing Joe in the name of research. Her transformation in a scene where Portman breaks the fourth wall and reads one of Gracie’s old love letters in her voice and demeanor is simply breathtaking acting that will be surely be taught in many an acting school.
Matching the chameleon-esque Portman is a stupendous Moore with her ethereal gaze as a woman who confuses delusion with naïveté, and a heartbreaking Melton as a man whose life has merely been reduced down to a story that once was in the headlines, facing the consequences of his manipulation for the first time.
Despite a heavy-handed cocoon motif that sometimes spells out the story’s themes to a fault, Haynes has done something spellbinding here: heady, grown-up and committed to a refreshing dose of moral ambiguity at a time in cinema where moral pandering sadly seems to be the default. You’ll cherish every bite of this complex layer cake that will reveal its kaleidoscopic colors as soon as you cut it open.