Arts & Entertainment, Film and TV

Todd Haynes’ ‘May December’ exposes exploitation in the public eye

Mentions of sexual abuse

At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Todd Haynes premiered his new film, May December, an immediate fan favourite. Known for his work on the critically-acclaimed Carol (2015), the director diverges from indie romance to a campy drama focused on Hollywood exploitation. The film draws parallels with real-world events, presenting them through a satirical lens to enhance the complex sentiments woven into the narrative. The story centres around Joe (Charles Melton) and Gracie (Julianne Moore), a couple with a shocking 23-year age gap. The couple is now married with two children, but they are still haunted by the controversy of Gracie’s sexual abuse conviction for her relationship with then-seventh grader Joe, who is the same age as her children from a previous marriage. Despite the occasional fecal hate mail, the family seems relatively happy. However, the pair finds themselves overwhelmed as actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) approaches them to conduct research for a movie delving into their relationship’s illicit history. As familial tensions rise, Joe and Gracie are forced to re-examine their relationships with each other and their extended family. 

The movie does a fantastic job of getting into the characters’ heads with the actors’ visceral portrayals, and subtle changes in cinematography. Viewers begin to see how Elizabeth and Gracie are both so calculating in their own actions that they begin to almost merge as characters. Melton’s performance intensifies the film, bringing conviction to an already fantastic turn from both actresses. Joe’s character feels extremely honest and unvarnished, leaving the audience feeling guilty for witnessing the manipulation he undergoes.

While the movie intially addresses sexual abuse, it expands its lens to exploitation as a whole. Elizabeth initially seems to observe the couple with unique compassion, but ultimately manipulates them both in a futile attempt to achieve her fullest artistic expression. Unbothered by the family’s reaction to her depiction, Elizabeth treats Gracie and Joe as playthings to fulfill her character analysis rather than as real people. The film skillfully portrays the pervasive and far-reaching consequences of unresolved trauma. These impacts, then, ripple through Joe and Gracie’s children. 

What sets this movie apart is its willingness to fully embrace its own absurdity. It doesn’t shy away from poking fun at itself and maintains a level of self-awareness that its characters continuously lack. The film calls out the glamorization of true crime, both by filmmakers and viewers, who treat victims as commodities. This distinctive approach blurs the lines between comedy and drama, extracting genuine human emotion from the very material of tabloid sensationalism. As viewers, we are thrust into a deeply uncomfortable space, encouraged to question our intrigue of the story and the morality of our viewership. The 23-year age gap between Joe and Gracie becomes a central point of intrigue and scrutiny, challenging our preconceptions about love, relationships, and social expectations. In doing so, the film elevates itself beyond a mere exploration of a sensationalized story and invites us to reflect on the intricacies of human relationships and the mediation of reality and fiction.

May December is a profound and unconventional film that reflects the human condition in all its absurd and uncomfortable glory. As the characters grapple with their scandalous past and an intrusive filmmaker’s lens, the movie pushes us to question not just its own logic but the very fabric of our own relationships and societal norms. All of the film’s actors bring their roles to life, forcing the viewer to look beyond tabloid sensationalism to a deeper exploration of exploitation and the profound, long-lasting effects of trauma.

May December is available on Netflix on Dec. 1st

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