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‘May December’: A Breathtaking Film by Todd Haynes Explores Intergenerational Sex

“May December” is another breathtaking offering from Todd Haynes, who has a natural tendency to portray characters on the verge of suffocation, emotional as well as physical. From his earliest films like “Poison and “Safe,” toxicity has been a favorite trope of this auteur, but the pathology of love and lust has never been portrayed with such gentle fervency as in this touching production.

In “May December,” Natalie Portman plays the role of Elizabeth Berry, a Hollywood actress who travels to Savannah to meet Gracie Atherton-Yoo, played by Julianne Moore. Elizabeth is slated to appear in a new film about Gracie, whose story became notorious when she had a sexual liaison with Joe Yoo, a thirteen-year-old boy. Gracie and Joe (played by Charles Melton) have now been married for twenty-three years and have three children.

The narrative is loosely based on a true story involving Mary Kay Letourneau, an elementary school teacher in Washington State who was imprisoned in the 1990s for raping Vili Fualaau, one of her twelve-year-old pupils. They had two daughters and were married for fourteen years. Letourneau died in 2020, leaving her estate to Fualaau after their eventual divorce.

May December, Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman @Photo by Francois Duhamel / courtesy of Netflix

But back to “May December.” The plot centers on Elizabeth Berry’s desire to understand the complex emotional and psychological forces at work in the liaison between Gracie and Joe. By traveling to their Savannah home to interview the Atherton-Yoos and their friends, Elizabeth acts as a catalyst, bringing long-simmering emotions to boil.

At first, the revelations are fairly innocuous, but as the days pass, things become more fraught. Elizabeth’s quiet but persistent interrogation has a profound impact on the other characters. Before long, everyone begins revealing deep, dark secrets they have been suppressing since the start of the forbidden relationship.

Things come to a climax quite literally toward the end of the film when Elizabeth and Joe make passionate love, initiated by the actress after Joe repairs her nebulizer—another allusion to Haynesian “suffocation.” In its aftermath, Joe is incensed when he comes to believe that his relationship with Gracie might perhaps be nothing more than a story for filmmakers. Also in its aftermath, Joe and Gracie must confront truths about themselves they had been suppressing, consciously or unconsciously.

What is most remarkable about this most remarkable film is the exquisite way each of the actors express—as individuals and as an ensemble—the profound emotions at play here. Portman, Moore, and Melton bring impressive credentials to the task at hand. They are at once vulnerable and stalwart, subtle and robust, drinking deep from sources—both subliminal and sublime—that make for outstanding performance.

May December, Natalie Portman @Photo by Francois Duhamel / courtesy of Netflix

“May December” does not pretend to give a definitive answer to the existential question of whether intergenerational sex is ever justified, but it deserves accolades for the way it handles the white-hot forces at work here. It deftly probes the complex dynamics involved in the notion of seduction, suggesting that the relationship between Gracie and Joe was primarily based on mutual concern, not unilateral exploitation.

The film ends with a reenactment of the scene years ago when the couple first indulged their passions in the stockroom of the pet shop where the boy then worked. Haynes’s deft use of symbolism here is notable. Medusa-like, Elizabeth Berry insists on repetitively filming several takes of the scene, complete with a live snake, only because she finally believes she is beginning to grasp the reality of her controversial relationship. By contrast, Elizabeth the snake-handler is juxtaposed with Joe the amateur lepidopterist, who had just released to the wilds a butterfly that had emerged from its chrysalis.

Rating: A+

Check out more of Edward’s articles. 

Here’s the trailer of the film. 

Edward Moran
Edward Moran
Edward Moran began his journalistic career many decades ago as a theater and cinema reviewer for Show Business and the New York Theater Review. More recently he contributed film reviews to and Movie Sleuth. His writings have appeared in publications as diverse as the Times Literary Supplement, Publishers Weekly, the Paris Review, and the Massachusetts Review. Moran also edited a memoir by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Christine Choy. He served as literary advisor to her film Hyam Plutzik: American Poet, which was the keynote film in the American Perspectives series at the 2007 Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin.


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