May December at Cannes review: Todd Haynes undercooks what could have been a tasty drama

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore  (handout)
Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore (handout)

After winning in Cannes in 2015 with Carol, Todd Haynes is back in competition with May December, again with two female leads and again dealing with sexuality and manipulation. While not as strong as Carol, May December is an intriguing, if ultimately disappointing film.

The film opens with actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arriving in Savannah to delve into the real life of the woman she is about to portray on screen. Grace (Julianne Moore) is her subject, specifically Grace’s relationship with a 13-year-old boy Joe (Charles Melton) when she was 36. Grace was imprisoned and gave birth to a daughter behind bars. She was also placed on the national sex offender register. On release, her relationship with Joe continued. Cut to the present, and the married couple are living in their hometown with teenage twins, the older daughter already away at college.

When Elizabeth questions why they remained when many locals are hostile, Grace insists it is her home and sees no reason to leave, saying: ‘I am naïve. I always have been. I think it’s a gift’. Yet how naïve is she? Moore is excellent at wrongfooting us: sometimes she’s the boss, ordering Joe around, and sometimes she’s a bitch, telling her teenage daughter how brave she is for baring her arms. She’s controlling and manipulative, yet we also see her weeping and fragile.

The film itself raises further questions. Grace now has a cake-baking business, with many clients buying her cakes out of charity. But why? Why does Joe only question the start of their relationship now? Wouldn’t it have been more natural to do so when his children turned 13? How do the children feel about having a paedophile mother? And why is that never really addressed?

Natalie Portman and Charles Melton (handout)
Natalie Portman and Charles Melton (handout)

Haynes uses Michel Legrand’s music for the film The Go-Between (which won the Palme d’Or in 1971) to set the dramatic tone; it’s a nod to the film’s subject matter. In that film, a 13-year-old boy is infatuated with an older woman. It seems that in this case, the infatuation was hers. With the 1970s-style font for the credits and lots of fuzzy soft focus, elements combine to ramp up the made-for-TV aspects of this drama.

Towards the film’s end, Grace tells Elizabeth that “insecure people are dangerous”. It’s hard to know if she’s referring to the actress or herself, the two women sharing many traits and not many of them good. Haynes frequently places them before a mirror, together or alone, the one a reflection of the other. As in a hall of mirrors, we are never sure that what is being reflected back at us is real, and in the end we don’t really care.

May December screened at the 76th Cannes Film Festival