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May December review - a queasy take on sexual exploitation | reviews, news & interviews

May December review - a queasy take on sexual exploitation

May December review - a queasy take on sexual exploitation

Todd Haynes reunites with Julianne Moore in a stylish but cold melodrama

Mirror mirror: Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) studies Gracie (Julianne Moore)

There’s much to admire  here – May December features impressive performances from Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, and director Todd Haynes shows his mastery of classic Sirkian style. But disappointingly, this comes across as a movie that aims to critique media exploitation of a scandal while indulging in its own manipulation.  

May December is a riff on a real-life story from the ‘90s, when Mary Kay Letourneau, a Seattle teacher in her mid-thirties had sex with a 12-year old boy in her school. At the time, she was married with four children of her own. When the scandal broke, she was charged with second-degree child rape. Pregnant, she insisted it was a love match. Letourneau went on to have two children with her former pupil and they married when he was of age. The couple co-wrote a book, Only One Crime, Love and became not only fodder for the tabloids but the subject of several TV shows. 

First-time screenwriter Samy Burch tells the story using a veil of meta-fiction. She’s invented the character of Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an actress well-known on TV but ambitious to break out and make a critically acclaimed film. Elizabeth, cast in the role of the scandalous teacher-seducer, sets out to observe her subject. Gracie (Julianne Moore) is now in her fifties and lives with her college-age children and still boyish husband Joe (Charles Melton, pictured below with Julianne Moore). Elizabeth is deep in the Method and has come to spend time with Gracie in order to portray her. May SeptemberShe wants to hang out with the family, study Gracie’s speech and personal style, ultimately to embody her on screen. It’s a little hard to see what’s in it for Gracie and Joe (there’s no mention of financial compensation or any kind of input into the script), but maybe they hope for a sympathetic audience if they can convince the lead actress to tell it as a love story. Certainly the couple are still regarded locally as beyond the pale, regularly finding boxes of shit addressed to Gracie shoved through their letterbox. 

The problem with May December is that despite featuring strong actresses and being produced by the formidable Christine Vachon, the film still has a whiff of misogyny about it. Both Gracie and Elizabeth are portrayed as women who deploy femininity as a stealth weapon; both believe they can fool others about what really motivates them and are seemingly unaware that they only fool themselves. They are equally unlikable and unknowable except as shallow, self-absorbed women. They want to see themselves reflected well on screen – Gracie as a woman who suffered prison and social opprobrium for true love, and Elizabeth as a serious actress acclaimed for getting inside a complex character’s skin.  

The result is a queasy dance around a disturbing central story in which the women involved come over as femme fatales, exploiting and manipulating a man who remains a cypher throughout and seems to lack any agency himself. If May December is meant to be a critique of media exploitation and the public’s voracious appetite for sexual scandal, it’s trying to have its cake and eat it too. 


The result is a queasy dance around a disturbing central story


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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