Todd Haynes’ transgressive powers are back in full force for his latest film May December. Not only has the auteur adapted one of America’s most salacious stories, that of schoolteacher Mary Kay Letourneau who began a sexual relationship with her twelve-year-old student Vili Fualaau and birthed their child behind bars, he’s constructed his narrative in a house of mirrors that flips your expectations right-side-up, reflecting your voyeurism back onto itself.
The outermost chamber of this house of mirrors comes from the meta-gaze of protagonist Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who visits the infamous family while preparing to portray the perpetrator in a forthcoming independent film. Twenty years have passed since the 1990s tabloid frenzy, and Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) are preparing to send their twins to college.
Gracie occupies herself baking cakes nobody wants, and Joe sits in front of renovation shows with a pale ale. Gracie hunts quails, Joe nurses butterfly larvae through their lifecycle. Their waterfront home quakes under the weight of a life of abuse, of a father closer in age to his children than his wife. Here lies the innermost chamber, constructed by Gracie herself out of gaslighting, manipulation, and projection.
Elizabeth overstays her welcome, desperate to find something real in these halls of deceit. We share her thirst for answers, justifying her unethical approach in the name of artistic integrity. And then the final scene falls like a gavel, condemning us all in the meaningless pageantry of tabloid predation. Spilling over with pulp aesthetics — the 1970s zooms, the giallo-esque cinematography, the crime show score and the Y2K erotic thriller taboos — Haynes has invented a genre unto its own: the exploitation exploitation film.
May December is now steaming on Netflix and will have an in theatre screening at Cinema Moderne (Montreal) on Dec. 13 and 16.