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May December review, Cannes: Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore are tremendous in this Todd Haynes melodrama

What the hell caused a woman in her thirties to have an affair with a teenage boy? This is the question asked in the book by Todd Haynes May december (had its world premiere in competition at Cannes on Saturday, May 20). New Feature is another hot and exploratory melodrama from the American director.

It has a plot that could be taken straight from a gripping soap opera but the American director is behind it caro (2015) and Far from heaven (2002) approaches his material with an intensity that recalls some of Ingmar Bergman’s most coherent and focused character studies. He makes great performances out of his two leads, Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore.

Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, a movie star who travels to Savannah, Georgia, to research her new role. In the next film, she will play Gracie (Julianne Moore), a woman who, two decades ago, was at the center of a tabloid scandal after having an affair with a 7th grader (that is, a boy). 13 year olds). year old).

Gracie was arrested when the case became public. After that, she divorced her husband and married a guy Joe (Charles Melton) 20 years younger than her. They are married, have college-aged stepchildren and are now “a beloved part of the community.” However, Elizabeth’s appearance evokes some very unpleasant memories and reveals lingering resentments towards her.

Portman’s character radiates bad faith. She pretends to have a crush on Gracie when she really just wants to take advantage of her. “This is not a story. That’s my damn life,” exclaimed Gracie at one stage as Elizabeth crept into her world in a predatory fashion. The Hollywood star interviews everyone she can, from Gracie’s ex-husband to her son from her first marriage. (“Of course it ruined my life,” the son told her about his mother’s illicit affair.) Elizabeth began to dress like Gracie. She mimics everything about her, from her makeup to the way she talks.

Elizabeth is a chameleon-like character who cannot read true emotions. In one narrative scene, she goes to the school Gracie’s children attend and talks to the drama class. A student asked her about performing sex scenes in front of the camera. She admits her ambiguity about such scenes. Sometimes, she is pretending to like them, but in other cases, the opposite applies: she is pretending not to like them when in fact she does.

Moore’s Gracie combines toughness and vulnerability. She spends her days baking the cakes she sells to her neighbors and shows her cheerfulness but it doesn’t take long to reveal her insecurities and selfishness.

Much of the film’s joy lies in the clash of styles. At certain times, it is rubbish and voyeuristic. In other cases, such as when Elizabeth and Gracie are alone together, it becomes closer to Bergman. personality, with the famous scene in which the faces of the actor played by Liv Ullmann and her nurse Bibi Andersson seem to merge. The shrill soundtrack by Marcelo Zarvos adds a jarring effect to the film.

Natalie Portman and Charles Melton

(Manufacturing Company Limited May December 2022)

As the two women shade each other, Haynes also spends time with Joe, a young husband married to a woman 20 years older than him. Joe is obsessed with caterpillars and butterflies. He’s a friendly character but emotionally stunted. It’s as if marrying Gracie so young, he’d let go of a whole part of his life and entered middle age too soon.

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It is never clear who is exploiting whom. Perhaps Gracie invited Elizabeth to her family’s home because she was paid for it. There wouldn’t be any other reason to rummage through such painful memories. She’s embarrassed by her affair with a teenage boy but tells herself he’s the one who initiated it. Elizabeth is a methodical actress, so devoted to researching her new role that she seems to have lost her compassion or moral responsibility.

May december is a movie with no frills or special effects. It’s a tightly character-focused study, sparked by Portman and Moore’s superb performances, that delve into areas that conventional TV series don’t reach.

Directed by: Todd Haynes; Actors: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore. UK release date tbc.


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