“The tension never breaks.” That’s Natalie Portman in May December as Elizabeth, an actress describing the process of filming a sex scene while doing research for a different role. Director Todd Haynes fills his film with doubling like that—people pulling double duty or leading double lives—and as befits its charged premise: there are more than a few double entendres.
The nervous energy of May December begins due to Elizabeth’s star presence—which Portman exercises in just the right measure—but it’s sustained for more prurient reasons. As written by Samy Burch, she’s on hand to study Gracie (Julianne Moore, in top form), a brittle mother of three, who just happened to meet her second husband when he was in the seventh grade. With glances at the tabloid material that has dogged them (Gracie in prison, a baby born behind bars), this is rich material for sensationalism. It explains why Elizabeth is there and why the film’s characters are on edge, including Gracie’s young husband Joe (a remarkable Charles Melton, his inner child never far from view). In marshalling all of this, Haynes’ achievement acts as a bit of doubling too. He carefully constructs the lurid hothouse environment of the film—using the Georgia-set climate, the surging music from Marcelo Zarvos, and his eye for character and performance to nail the details—and then marries it to the film’s slippery writing, which somehow finds multiple answers to the singular questions of its subject. As we get deeper into the narrative, what seems obvious becomes less so, leading to the end result: a film both sad and devious, with winners who are losers and vice versa.
As it happens, the tension does not quite break in May December, though something does feel resolved by the end. Does this mean Elizabeth comes to understand Moore’s complicated Gracie? Maybe, but Haynes grasps that the inverse of that question may be better still. And when his film’s final frames do come, while you won’t necessarily double over, it’s incredible to note what breaks instead: laughter.