May December (Cannes 2023) Movie Review – Potential cult film leaves viewers hanging with bland ending

May December
Potential cult film leaves viewers hanging with bland ending

Todd Haynes’ May December starring Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman and Charles Melton takes the main competition of 2023 Cannes Film Festival by surprise. It starts off with popular TV actress Elizabeth played by Natalie Portman, heading to a sleepy town to research on her next role, based on Gracie (Julianne Moore), a sociopathic baker with a tendency to play the victim and manipulate circumstances in her favour while having a traumatic childhood.

As Gracie reluctantly welcomes the actress in her home, Elizabeth starts pushing the boundaries of research as the lines of acting and emulating start blurring. Is Elizabeth trying to embrace her inner shamelessness with the excuse to authentically play Gracie or is it just plain research? The film questions that while diving into the psyche of the baker through Elizabeth shadowing her.

As the story of the film within the film is revealed, the viewers start wondering about Elizabeth’s motives as she invades her subject’s privacy. Gracie and Joe (Charles Melton) are an infamous couple, making headlines 23 years ago for their scandalous relationship. A 36-year-old Gracie gets together with her co-worker Joe while working at a pet shop. The only problem is that he is 13, in the same grade as Gracie’s oldest son. She is arrested while pregnant but what shakes the town is the couple’s insistence that she hasn’t done anything wrong and that they are in love.

In an attempt to turn the tide in their favour, they say yes to a movie being made on the scandal years later. And as Elizabeth starts surreptitiously investigating it in the guise of research, the couple start getting uncomfortable, unsure if they made the right decision and if the film will be a blessing or a curse. It also starts affecting their relationship as Joe gets enamoured by the actress who is his age while Elizabeth starts obsessing over Gracie, losing herself in the ‘role’. Not only does she start bonding with Joe just to supposedly understand her role, she starts envying Gracie’s apathy. Her obsession with Gracie also has hints of sexual attraction as it makes viewers wonder — does she want to be like her or be with her?

At a point, it becomes unsure of who is copying whom. Actual mirrors are used as Elizabeth and Gracie not only look like each other but act like each other. Joe’s passion for butterflies runs parallel with the metamorphosis of Elizabeth turning into a Gracie 2.0. But this also makes one wonder if she was just in her cocoon, waiting for the right moment to embrace her dark and twisted side. Then we have Gracie who often hunts, but spares a fox, known for their sly and clever nature, hinting that she just may be aware of her faults even if its just for a moment. And well, trying to cast an actual 13-year-old as Joe in the fake film just shows the weirdness of the couple.

Haynes covers all of his bases, all the characters have backstories such as motives of the husband, the children and Gracie’s ex-family. Joe’s sibling-like dynamic with his kids shows just how young he is, not ready to be a father, and why the whole point of getting with minors is ethically wrong. Joe goes through his own crisis but neither Gracie or Elizabeth try to understand him, he is the victim yet he is the one caught in the crossfire of the game Gracie and Elizabeth play.

Despite such a strong story, the psychological drama cannot bury the technical experimentation that fails. We have dramatic moments with zoom ins that don’t suit the tone of the film. Sudden overwhelming music for filler scenes feel odd as the music doesn’t match the moments or the emotions of its scenes. The movie has a great story and great acting, but unfortunately the technical style just doesn’t work. We wish that was the only bummer but the ending let’s us down as well. There is no growth for any of the characters, no progress. All of the rising tension and the set up leads to nothing. This lack of catharsis just makes the movie incomplete, as if it ended abruptly due to a technical mistake with the footage of the actual last act lying somewhere in the editing room.

Known for his cult-like films, Todd Haynes’ May December ruins its potential with an intriguing plot and a bland ending. It feels like a TV episode with constant plot twists and jaw dropping hooks only to end in a cliffhanger as fans wait for the resolution in the next episode, except we won’t be getting that type of closure with this movie.

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  • Verdict - 7.5/10

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