The latest effort from veteran filmmaker Todd Haynes, “May December,” is a triumph in every sense of the word. Striking an impressive balance between light tragedy and dark comedy, the film stands among the director’s best and, indeed, as one of the year’s finest. At its core is a May-December relationship between Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton). We meet them twenty years after the beginning of their illicit romance, when Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an actress preparing to play Gracie, threatens to shake the very foundation of their marriage.

Elizabeth serves as our surrogate, guiding us through the many layers of what, on the surface, is a relationship that borders on the surreal – a relationship between a man barely into his thirties with children already graduating high school and the woman who seduced him when he was a teenager. Three of the year’s best performances, in combination with Haynes’ positioning us as spectators, allow the film’s thematic depth to shine through.

While we may be aligned with Elizabeth at first, Portman fabulously walks the thin line between film-star charisma and unlikeable transparency; both Melton and Moore are gifted chances to flesh out their characters as humans rather than characters. By the end, it is perhaps Melton, giving an unassuming and tender performance that starkly contrasts the boldness of Moore and Portman’s, who will captivate audiences’ hearts. All three master the assignment, and all three demand awards attention at the end of the year.

Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch, delivering a tight screenplay that never once meanders or lacks in richness, force viewers to shift their allegiance more than once – the key to any good drama. Like Elizabeth, we adopt a voyeuristic position, observing and judging but never truly understanding the nuances of Gracie and Joe’s dynamic. As she begins discovering the “truth” of the pair’s relationship, we, too, find satisfaction in this journey that makes us reconcile with and reevaluate every preconceived notion we may hold toward such a couple. This element works phenomenally, as Haynes is not only able to tap into the huge comedic potential of this surreal “fish out of water” story but also make us undergo Elizabeth’s change and growth alongside her. In turn, this creates a very fulfilling viewing experience, as we are consistently engaged with the film and our lead’s investigation into this couple’s life together.

A still May December (2023).
A still May December (2023).

“May December” nevertheless posits that perhaps there is no “truth” to even be found, a message the film’s ending indicates by demonstrating that all of Elizabeth’s “method acting” has resulted in an aggressively bad performance. The judgments she comes to are all wrong, proving that it is futile to replicate another person as we can never truly know anyone. Through the performances of his three principal actors and a voyeuristic perspective that allows us moments with every character, Haynes achieves something remarkable – real human drama, unjudging and unflinching.

Key to the film’s success, however, are its attempts to divorce viewers from the tragedy underneath the surface. The wonderfully campy use of Marcelo Zarvos’ score, Christopher Blauvelt’s sleek cinematography, and the finely tuned and constructive editing from Affonso Goncalves all create a distinctive, overly stylized aesthetic. Yet, the incredibly human performances deliver this required sense of naturalism. The conflict between realism and surrealism aids the thematic intentions of the piece and works to further engage the spectator, who may not want to face the realities of this relationship but is forced to do so.

The film’s central argument is that we must look beyond the surface of any person or situation. Just as the tabloid stories about Gracie and Joe provided a superficial attack on her morality, the film’s deliberately constructed aesthetic bars us from the story’s more human aspects. We find ourselves utterly transfixed when Haynes pulls away and allows us to treat these characters as people.

It is this match of aesthetic and thematic intent that enables the film to creep into and take hold of your brain, almost daring you to brush it off as nothing more than a campy comedy the way people twenty years earlier brushed Gracie off as a manipulative abuser. All the elements of the film’s production marry seamlessly.

It’s not just a hilarious ride that’s beautiful to look at; through the conflict between realism and surrealism, the film becomes something far greater. “May December” is such a textured tapestry of ideas woven into a brilliantly compelling narrative – as subtle as it is camp, as stylized as it is real, as tragic as it is comedic. A film built on contradictions and subverting expectations, “May December” is unlike anything else you’ll see this year.

★★★★★

Read More: Everything Coming To Netflix in December 2023

May December (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
May December (2023) Movie Cast: Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, Chris Tenzis, Charles Melton
May December (2023) Movie Genre: Comedy, Drama| Runtime: 1h 57 Mins
Where to watch May December

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