Rated R for being about statuatory rape all the way through. There's on screen sex and nudity. There's language. Really, the whole thing is incredibly sexual and there's no dancing around it. This is one of those movies you need to know what it is about before you start watching it. Once again, a movie about cruelty. R.
DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes
Again, I'm in the camp that didn't enjoy this movie. Maybe it is because I'm becoming more of a prude or that I've always been a bit of a prude, but I don't enjoy movies that are entirely built on the foundation of sex. I suppose that's a very specific kind of prudishness. I just remember, as long as I have been alive, that movies that talk about sex as its driving narrative factor, always seem bad to me. I can't explain it. Maybe a therapist can explain it. It's why I'm usually turned off by the films of John Waters when everyone else loses their minds over him. I have come to terms with the fact that John Waters must be an incredibly talented director and it's my weird hang-ups that make me annoyed by movies of that kind of ilk.
But while I tend to have respect for John Waters, his movies are at least a celebration of a culture. That's why I mentally, if not emotionally, respect these movies. May December isn't an awful movie. There's technical skill here and a story that has a compelling element to it. After all, there's a lot of Black Swan happening here and it's not just the casting of Natalie Portman. There's that beat of sexuality leading to a place of "becoming." But to detract from May December, Black Swan did it better. I just wrote about Four Daughters, which also dealt with the notion of becoming someone else through acting. I get that there's a story here to unpack. When does someone lose their sense of self when trying to become someone else? That's a fun story, but I just don't like how either of these movies handled this idea. Again, I know that a lot of people really enjoyed this film and talked about stand out performances throughout the story. But I'm not getting a lot of that.
Part of that comes from the shock value that the whole movie presents. I know. I said that I was a prude sometimes. It's not that I'm pearl clutching. It's a lot of "I get it." Elizabeth keeps pushing boundaries of what is shocking as she tries living Grace's lifestyle. (Just because I don't have a paragraph for this, I would like to point out that I know that this is about Mary Kay Letourneau, but that's so out there that me talking about it ad nauseum might detract from my focus. I'm going to refer to this as Grace because that's in-universe.) The moments are cool. Haynes, to his credit, times these moments out really well to know that Elizabeth is potentially the more unhealthy of the two people. When given a lewd question from a high schooler, there's this cool moment where she considers herself being the professional and answering so honestly that it comes across as crass. She's encapsulating both Elizabeth and Grace here. She has the professionalism and voice of Elizabeth with the "aw shucks" faux naivete of saying wildly offensive things without seeming to have malice.
As I'm writing this, I have to explain some things. I thing the elements of a truly great story are here. I don't think it is executed as a whole well, but some things are positively brilliant. I kept Googling, "What's up with the music in May December?", only with different words so I could get actual results. The music and vibe of the movie are...silly? I mean, honestly, the whole tone of the movie is seemingly intentionally Lifetime. It's elevated Lifetime movie. There's a reason in my head for why this is the way it is. It's one of the things I probably would have done with this movie. I just don't think it sells the way that it supposed to. The Latourneau thing was the fodder for stuff like Hallmark. The movie is about the fact that Grace has had all of these cheap, exploitative movies made about her. The reveal at the end is that Elizabeth is also making a cheap and exploitative film about Grace, despite doing all of this research and throwing herself into the role. The actual bit of footage we get to see about the movie within the movie is absolutely terrible.
But the thing is, it's very sledgehammer. I have a hard time getting past it. There are moments where we have this interesting character study of Elizabeth who has to feign that she's not judging Grace when she absolutely is judging her. There's the odd sympathy that she has for Grace as well, wanting to feel the sexual feeling of embracing a taboo in the back of the pet shop. Then we have that shift to where Elizabeth comes across as emotionless and distant, referring to children by degrees of attractiveness. Grace, similarly, is a character who spirals and we get to see the toxic world she has fosterd around her family. This is interesting stuff. But when we're told through music and visual cues that none of this stuff is elevated material, it is hard to really say "My, how fascinating." Again, somewhere along the way, I might have gone the same way at Todd Haynes and tried this as a method for delivering some intense acting and storytelling. But when it didn't work, I would pivot. Haynes didn't pivot. It honestly makes all of this seem cheap and worthless when there is something to say here.
Oddly enough, I really did like Joe's story. Elizabeth and Grace get these great moments of dialogue. Joe, however, is mute for a lot of the film. He's a character that we don't get to see even in film. He might be the first character I've ever seen in their thirties who has to deal with being an empty nester. His wife is aged and he lives this complicated life where he doesn't know what a normal family looks like. Part of that comes from the fact that he has to double down on a decision that he made when he was thirteen. He built this whole life that depends on him completely embracing something that has no real solid foundation. He believes that he's in love with Grace, but every moment is wracked with guilt and doubt. When Elizabeth seduces him, we realize that his feelings for Grace were not about Grace herself. It was the notion of something either taboo or just being seen. As much as Grace claims that she sees Joe as a partner in her marriage, she treats him like a child, bullying him to move his bug collection from room to room.
I kind of love that Joe is hiding a relationship from his wife the entire time. This is something about maturity that comes with actual growth. Technically, there's nothing wrong about Joe having a text conversation wtih Michaela from the bugs group. He's being above board for the most part and focusing on the bugs. But he keeps the text messages secret from his wife. Basically, he's allowing this open door for a relationship to flourish (appropriately, like the butterflies that are changing throughout the film) because it's an escape plan. It's an alternative to a life without Grace. But that's the sign of an immature relationship. Secret friendships are problems because secret friendships bloom into other things. While Joe's kids look at him like he's Dad, he regularly collapses under stresses that should be easy for an adult. He's more of a peer to his kids than an actual father and he so wants to be them all over again. I honestly don't really invest in Elizabeth or Grace. I'm all about seeing this movie for Joe.
Maybe in the course of writing this, I have a greater appreciation for the movie. I just don't like the delivery. It's so melodramatic and shock-for-shock value. But when the movie embraces vulnerability and lets us sit on a moment, the film actually gets some legs. I wish I liked it more. Again, it may be me. But I am glad to put this one behind me.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.