MAY DECEMBER. To see the invisible [REVIEW]

Within the psychological case study of May December, there is no objective truth.

Maciej Satora

3 October 2023

The emerging American summer leaves the first drops of sweat on the forehead. The grilling season begins; vacuum-packed sausages finally land on the grill grate. An impressive two-story house becomes the meeting place for the small-town community. A handsome young man approaches a woman skillfully hiding wrinkles under layers of makeup. They kiss, for a long time. A bit too long. Outside, a diva in sunglasses peeks through the window. Everyone freezes, as if in stillness; engaged conversations quiet down, and somewhere in the background, you can hear the air held in lungs.

The first conversation between women reveals intentions. The younger one (Natalie Portman) is an actress, preparing for the role of an older woman (Julianne Moore). The film’s shooting will start in a few weeks. Elizabeth Berry, known worldwide, clearly states – she does not want to rekindle tabloid controversy, does not want to scandalize. “It’s a beautiful, psychologically complex project. We want to do you justice, portray the complexity of the situation, understand you, and them.” The older Gracie mumbles something politely, avoids eye contact, looks away. Perhaps she suspects that it’s just a rhetorical formula – almost 20 years after the tabloid-covered romance with a thirteen-year-old, she still regularly receives feces packaged in postal boxes. Although she has managed to create a simulation of comfort in the neighborhood, she knows that all of America hates her. She blindly hoped people would forget, but people don’t forget. So, she lets the actress immerse herself in her life; invites her to dinners, teaches her to bake cakes, takes her to flower arranging workshops. Elizabeth transforms into a reporter for this time – always with a discreet notebook, jotting down small observations, asking about painful pasts, motivations, intentions. Instead of scribbling on crumpled sheets, the actress sketches on the viewer’s perception, allowing a picture of this peculiar world to be built through precisely posed questions and rehearsed answers. On the narrative level: maintaining the appearance of normality but quickly revealing cracks, unhealed, and often unconscious wounds. On the directorial level: subtly building horror, drawn in by Haynes into a peculiar, post-ironic parenthesis.



May December sends the director’s fans back more to the early, boldly twisted Poison or Safe than to the safe, almost non-authorial Wonderstruck or Dark Waters – Haynes finally returns to satisfyingly playing with conventions. He skillfully handles camp but never falls into self-parody, playing at the highest tones without pretension. Perhaps because the tonal eccentricity flows directly from the psychological complexity of the characters. The three corners of the triangle create a critical polyphony. Gracie, seemingly the most composed and orderly, regularly erupts into hysterical crying over trivial failures, reminding of the unreality of the ordered matrix of everyday life. Her husband Joe, a seventh-grader trapped in the body of a 36-year-old hunk, is sending children more mature than himself to state college. There is also Elizabeth, meticulously tracking every tiny detail to better prepare herself for the film role, but the task is almost impossible due to her individual emotional apathy. The controversial triumph of forbidden love cannot, of course, be understood by the romantic illiterate, trained in the replication of concepts of feelings. But can it be understandable to anyone else? Or, differently; should it be at all?

May December cleverly plays with this question. Within the story of meticulous character studies, it actually thematizes the issue of the immutability of primary moral judgments and culturally coded prejudices. In this sense, Haynes’s latest film will be seen differently by each viewer; for some, it will be a story of social non-acceptance, an impossible force to overcome, for others a tale of manipulative grooming and its psychological consequences. For the satisfaction of Haynes, the puppet master, it sometimes seems to tilt the scales of judgment in one direction, speaking through the mouths of the seemingly in love (but really?) characters, and other times observing from a distance often absurdly escalating relationship conflicts. However, he leaves the sources of both unanswered, never revealing the objective truth, because within the psychological case study of May December, there is no objective truth. At least as viewers, we do not have access to it, observing the characters only through the context of headlines, flashes of reflection, and our ingrained views on human reality. Haynes is not interested in the sources of the portrayed relationship, does not present reasons, avoids strained psychoanalysis. What matters is what we, as intrusive reporters of social life, can glimpse. Only that.

Haynes also cleverly throws a screenplay focus on this intrusiveness. The overwhelming need for adaptation goes hand in hand with the apparent deepening of psychology. As the plot progresses, we learn that Elizabeth is not actually preparing for the first film about this romantic scandal. One was already made a few years ago, she lends an actor’s hand to the second, and more are probably on the way. America likes to read gossip rags, but above all, it loves to watch. Just like us, full of the illusory hope that cinema still possesses the revolutionary power to change perspectives.