Aging Savannah belle Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) has the dream life: a successful home baking business, great children, and the loving attention of her much younger, gorgeous husband Joe (Charles Melton). Since this is a Todd Haynes film, Gracie’s dream life is revealed to be a precarious house of cards, and Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a famous actress studying Gracie for a film about her life, is the gust of wind that threatens to blow the whole house down.
Gracie’s supposedly successful home baking business is a sham propped up by a dwindling handful of friends. Her children are great, and do love her, but this is Gracie’s second family; this is where things start to get sticky. If the LICORICE PIZZA age gap conversation was too much for you, I would advise you to sit this one out. Gracie gave birth to Honor (Disney kid Piper Curda), the first of this flock, while in prison for the statutory rape of Joe, who was in the 7th grade when they met as co-workers at a pet store and began their salacious tabloid affair. Gracie wants nothing more than to put the past behind her because it will endanger everything she knows about herself, whereas Elizabeth wants to bring Gracie’s buried past to the surface in order to discover her own artistic truths.
Discussing Gracie and Joe’s relationship is less of a question of power dynamics in age gap relationships and more of a study of prolonged control over another human being. The most glaring discrepancy between Gracie’s reality and the wider reality is the true nature of her relationship with Joe—she has zero grasp on the fact that she is actually the one holding the reins in their relationship, not him. It is preposterous to assert that a 36-year-old woman and a middle school boy can have a healthy love connection, but that is the lie that Gracie has told herself so many times that it has become her truth. If Gracie and Joe were in love when they were shacking it up in the storage closet, then what they were doing wasn’t wrong, and now that they are both adults, everything is fine. Through the power of the love lie, Gracie becomes a woman cruelly kept apart from the love of her life, instead of a literal convicted pedophile.
Nothing Gracie does can ever be bad or wrong; she is always the victim in every situation, and the people in her life keep up this facade for her because they don’t really have a choice. She suffers from frequent mental breakdowns that Joe has to comfort her through. What could he, or anyone in her life, do or say? Joe was totally powerless in the face of Gracie’s influence as a child, and he is under her thumb as an adult; that is, until Elizabeth starts asking questions. Of course, Joe and Gracie’s relationship has grown into something new since the beginning of their illicit affair– they have since raised three college aged children together—but Gracie’s total control is still there.
Gracie is a fascinating character study because she is a predator who has fragile white woman’d her way into seeing herself, and being seen, as prey. The word she uses to describe herself the most is “naïve.” This may be because Gracie was prey as a child herself, depending on who Elizabeth and the audience chooses to believe; it’s implied that Gracie was molested by her father and older brothers as a young girl, but she refuses to admit to herself or anyone else that this happened to her. If Gracie’s case is one of abuse begetting abuse, would that make her less of a monster? An unhinged person who has convinced themselves that they’re normal is sometimes more terrifying than an unhinged person who does a backflip straight off the deep end, because it’s less honest. “I’m secure,” Gracie tells Elizabeth at the end of Elizabeth’s tenure at the Atherton-Yoo household. “Make sure they put that in there.”
MAY DECEMBER is not the total camp fest that some have made it out to be. It is instead Haynes proving to us once again that he graduated with honors at the top of his class from the Douglas Sirk School of Melodrama—he did not attend the John Waters Camp for Freaks (which I love, but that’s not what’s at play here). Some campy moments naturally grow out of that melodrama (yes, I’m talking about the hot dogs line), but that doesn’t make it an overall “camp classic.” Sometimes we say “camp” when we mean “theatrical”; when subjects make us uncomfortable, it can be easy to write them off as camp. Haynes himself has said that he never intended for the film to be “camp,” but sees how it has since been interpreted as such. Camp is ironic, and I don’t sense a lot of irony here. Haynes is genuinely interested in the way that Elizabeth mirrors Gracie in order to discover something “real” as an artist, and Gracie genuinely believes the insane shit that comes out of her mouth. No one is winking or rolling their eyes at the camera, nor is this a queer subversion of norms, or a celebration of bad taste. Fifty seven years later, MAY DECEMBER is America’s answer to PERSONA.
All three lead performances from Moore, Portman, and Melton are stellar for their own reasons: Portman is on a level we haven’t seen since BLACK SWAN, and Melton has more than proven his acting chops as fragile and sweet through the enduring Joe now that RIVERDALE is wrapping up, but it’s Moore’s movie. At once fragile as a peach but with a (seemingly) ironclad grip of control over everyone around her, Moore is disquieting.
Haynes and Moore have been tackling complicated women together since SAFE, a prescient look at a woman who is allergic to modern life; her performance as Carol White is now rightly regarded as one of the most important in 1990s independent cinema, but it’s 2002’s FAR FROM HEAVEN that contains the seeds for MAY DECEMBER. A Sirkian homage to 1950s American housewives and their gossipy communities, Moore and Haynes first explored gender, racial and class boundaries in suburban America, which they are doing here, with an even more exaggerated eye. Gracie is white and Joe is not; Gracie is wealthy and Joe is not; but most importantly, Gracie is an adult, and Joe was not at the time they met. Yet Moore is able to blend Gracie’s frailty and domination seamlessly. There is not one without the other.
In one of the biggest, buzziest business deals on the Marché at Cannes this year, Netflix acquired the North American rights to MAY DECEMBER for $11 million. This move is both “emboldened,” as Haynes called it, and a bit disheartening. It’s important that story driven filmmakers like Haynes prove to be a financial boon, but Netflix has botched more than one theatrical release in recent memory. It’s a risky move, but one that I can’t help but admire; this could signal Netflix is moving away from instantly forgettable “background noise content,” and leaning harder into supporting controversial art that starts conversations.