Sunday 21 May 2023

Cannes 2023 - May December by Todd Haynes

A regular in Cannes over the last three decades, Todd Haynes has never won any award in Cannes, all the way back to Velvet Goldmine, a wonderful, soulful film which did not turn out to the the Trainspotting everyone was expecting then given Ewan McGregor's presence in it (don't ask, these were strange times) and more recently with Carol when a particular and questionable jury member campaigned against it if rumours are to be believed and recently with the beautiful and misunderstood Wonderstruck. The American director is back in Cannes with May December.

May December seemed like a cinephile dream with the little we knew about it. An intriguing first still had some strong Persona vibes and the combination of Haynes's long time favourite Julianne Moore and newcomer (in his universe) Natalie Portman all sounded really exciting.

May December is a surprising, at times baffling film in its themes and tone and just when audiences might think they have a grip on it it shifts again. In it, actress Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) looking to move to more serious material and away from TV shows comes to spend a few days with Gracie (Julianne Moore) to learn from her as she is about to play her in a film based on her life. For Gracie is infamous for having an affair with an underage boy Joe and going to prison for it, only to then marry him.

The film seems to have adopted the very particular style of daytime TV soap operas, the kind Elizabeth is so desperate to leave behind with its very peculiar brash but dull lighting, ever so slightly overexposed and an completely over the top scene in which an off-the-cuff remark about some hotdogs (!) by Julianne Moore is followed by some mad zoom makes the audience wonder whether this is going to be some kind of camp fest.

Yet Todd Haynes is a far better and interesting director than that. There is an underlying competition between the two women, with Elizabeth not having reached the kind of career she is aiming for and Gracie's commercial endeavours borne out the aim to cultivate a more wholesome image in the community in a bid to overlook what she did is not quite as successful as she makes it sound to be, far from it. The expected sparks and confrontation never quite materialise however, the director being more interested in an understated exploration of the two women with so much of the simmering tension left unsaid. 

Natalie Portman delivers perhaps her best and most interesting performance in a subtle but rich part and Julianne Moore is reliably excellent but the real surprise is Charles Melton as Gracie's second husband. The way the Riverdale actor expresses the contradictions of his character, a man-child stuck in the hunky body of an adult, all in awkwardness and underlying frailty is impressive. 

A cinephile dream, mysterious and understated, May December is a fascinating psychological enigma that confounds expectations.

Review by Laurent de Alberti

Star rating: 

Official Selection, in Competition

May December. Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton...

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