"Now melodrama never makes me weep anymore ... " -- Carly Simon, "I Haven't Got Time for the Pain"
Melodrama has a bad rap.
We might think of it as a genre that traffics in unearned plot twists and cheap clichés; we might even perceive it as inherently bad rather than an aesthetic choice. As it concerns itself with heightened emotions, exaggerated characters and extreme situations, we might mark it down as unrealistic and soapy or old-fashioned.
But Todd Haynes is a melodramatist, and he might be my favorite living director of motion pictures. He has never made a movie I didn't respond to; I believe his films are as true to life as the kitchen-sink dramas of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Haynes' films are offbeat and visually arresting and, best of all, explore plausible but extreme human relationships. They do not feel fantastic or cheap.
Haynes is a spiritual heir to Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and like those two directors is acutely attuned to the ways that music and sound design combine with imagery to communicate complex emotions unparsable by words. For example, in his current film "May December," there is an extended sequence where Haynes frames his co-lead actors, Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, in a bathroom makeup mirror, a scene that quotes Ingmar Bergman's "Persona."
Portman's character, an actor named Elizabeth Berry best known for her work on a network crime show, is shadowing Moore's character, Gracie Atherton-Yoo, in preparation for playing her in a high-toned independently financed bio-pic.
Gracie is an infamous figure, based loosely on the real-life Mary Kay Letourneau, who went to prison for having an affair with 12-year-old Vili Fualaau, a sixth-grader who was one of her students. While awaiting sentencing, Letourneau gave birth to Vili's daughter, and she agreed to a plea deal that sent her to prison for six months and required her to have no contact with Vili.
After she was released she was caught with Fualaau, and her plea deal was revoked. She was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, and while serving her sentence gave birth to a second daughter by Fualaau.
She was released in 2004 and married Fualaau, who was then 21, in 2005. The couple legally separated in 2017 but never divorced. When Letourneau died in 2020, Fualaau and their two daughters were at her bedside.
Anyway, Elizabeth is very interested in doing justice to Gracie in her portrayal, to the extent that she's observing her makeup regimen. She watches in the mirror as Gracie applies lipstick and foundation, and starts to put on Gracie's "face" herself. The older woman stops her, and begins to pat and powder Elizabeth's face.
The scene is simple but erotically charged and for a long moment you're afraid Haynes might spoil the movie with a kiss. And when both women turn to again face the mirror straight on, it is more the resonance of the souls than the remarkable resemblance of the women that gets to you. This is cinema -- storytelling that transcends the words of the script, what makes movies inherently different from novels.
It is also melodramatic, an allusion to the banked desires and hidden motives of the characters. We receive an intimation of Gracie as a sexual predator, of Elizabeth as a greedy researcher, willing to go to any extreme to know the truth of the woman she's going to play onscreen.
But in Haynes' world, neither of these women is a villain; they retain not only their dignity but their honor. Unlike, say, the Coen brothers, Haynes never offers his characters up as figures worthy of scorn or ridicule. He doesn't do snark -- he means for us to understand and empathize with his characters, to see their pain as legitimate and qualitatively equal to our own.
That doesn't mean he's not funny. "May December" is a black comedy, though the humor generally derives from offhand moments. For example, very early on in the movie, before we even realize the setup, Gracie is in the kitchen of her Tybee Island, Ga., home as her husband Joe (Charles Melton) prepares the grill outside for some sort of celebratory cookout. Gracie gazes into her refrigerator with a dire look on her face as the camera pushes in and the music pulses. What fresh hell has she glimpsed?
"I don't think we have enough hot dogs," she deadpans.
(Someone should write a long piece about the film's score, which is Marcelo Zarvos' interpretation of Michel Legrand's score for Joseph Losey's 1971 film "The Go-Between," a film in which a beautiful, wealthy and decidedly grown-up English Julie Christie befriends a lonely schoolboy and uses him to send secret messages to her tenant farmer lover, played by Alan Bates.)
It takes a while before we perceive the dynamic; Gracie and Joe have told themselves that they are very much in love for so long that they very nearly believe it. They still live in the city where they first met. She wasn't his teacher; he was hired to help out at a pet store where she worked. (The film was shot in and around Savannah, Ga., a town with which I'm familiar, and I only noticed one break in the film's reality -- at one point when Gracie's family is supposed to be heading back home to Tybee, they are actually driving north toward Hutchinson Island on the Talmadge Memorial Bridge.)
Mostly they seem well-adjusted, though it must be tough to have put down roots in a place where everyone knows their story. Their children have an uneasy truce with Gracie's children from her first marriage; when Elizabeth interviews her first husband, he comes off as a good but baffled sport. Most people seem to view Gracie as a well-intentioned and flighty eccentric -- but there are haters, and regular deposits of foul packages by her front door.
Gracie, for the most part, bears up well in public, though she periodically collapses weeping in her bed when she loses a client (she bakes and sells pineapple upside-down cakes). Joe is there to comfort her, to remind her of the specialness of their relationship. But what's really interesting about the way Moore plays her character is that we are constantly wondering whether there's more to her than platitudes and surfaces, or whether she's simply a shallow and immature woman with no idea how to negotiate life as an adult.
And Joe, who sacrificed his childhood on the altar on transcendent love, now -- on the cusp of middle age, as his daughter prepares to leave for college -- has to wonder about how he's spent half his life in thrall to a woman who, when he met her, was the age he is now. Melton, who plays Reggie Mantle on the CW series "Riverdale," is terrific at suggesting the inner passivity and weakness of the outwardly stoic Joe, who now finds himself effectively parenting -- or at least managing -- his high-strung and melodramatic wife.
The best role belongs to Portman, who will surely get major awards attention for her turn as ambitious, diligent and perpetually line-crossing Elizabeth. (In a just world, both Portman and Moore would be nominated for Best Actress Oscars; by custom and tradition one of them -- Netflix has reportedly told Variety it will be Moore -- will be positioned by the studio as a Best Supporting Actress candidate.)
Elizabeth gets the best scenes -- her one-take reading of a letter Gracie has written Joe during the onset of their affair is a showstopper, and there's a late moment where she pivots the entire movie with her reading of the line "That's what adults do."
Then there's a scene where she does a Q&A with a high school drama club that pushes past cringey humor into genuine revelation. While a lot of credit goes to the writing -- for a change, Haynes wasn't working from his own script but a screenplay by Sammy Burch -- Portman invests diligent, ruthless Elizabeth with a complex moral nature.
She's not the bad guy here. We get the sense that no matter how awful and volatile her actions seem, she is not only able to justify them as necessary in the pursuit of art, but that she believes in those justifications. She wants to make this role work, both for her career and the sake of the work. If Gracie and Joe are collateral damage, well, one only assumes they are being paid for their cooperation. This is what adults do.
(At one point, Elizabeth watches what appears to be a cheap and exploitative made-for-TV movie version of Joe and Gracie's story. Someone bought the rights to their story before; that's how Joe and Gracie can afford their rambling but not extravagant waterfront house. They have already cashed in on their tabloid notoriety.)
Let's not call "May December" a perfect work, but let's acknowledge that there's no obvious way to criticize this movie other than a simplistic reaction to the inherent ickiness of Gracie and Joe's relationship. She's a rapist, all right. So?
"I was very sheltered, and he matured very fast," she tells Elizabeth.
What's left unsaid is that she never did.
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- 90 Cast: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Cory Michael Smith, Elizabeth Yu, Gabriel Chung, Piper Curda, D.W. Moffett, Lawrence Arancio
- Director: Todd Haynes
- Rating: R
- Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Now streaming on Netflix