If mid-century master of women’s photography Douglas Sirk (1954s) Magnificent Obsession1955s Everything that follows heaven) made a film about sex offender Mary Kay Letourneau, it might look something like this: May December, the last of Far from paradise And Carol directed by Todd Haynes.
The film, which will debut in North American theaters on November 17 before hitting Netflix on December 1, follows TV actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) as she attempts to imitate the life of Gracie Atherton-Yu (Julianne Moore) for a film project. Gracie was once the subject of tabloid attention in the 1990s as a 36-year-old pet store worker who had a sexual relationship with then 13-year-old seventh grader Joe (played as an adult by Riverdale Charles Melton). Years later, when Elizabeth shows up on their doorstep, she and Joe are living a quiet, albeit complicated, family life with their children, who were born to Gracie in prison. The premise closely mimics the real-life events surrounding the Letourneau case, who was a Washington schoolteacher rather than a pet store worker, and whose lover was in 6th grade rather than 7th – something the film makes hilariously clear with mocking Gracie and Kitchen Table Joe.
“One of the things that Sami did that was so interesting about the story was that it placed the tabloid part of it way back in time,” Haynes tells EW, referring to screenwriter Sami Burch. “We have a 20-year gap between when this all broke out and this family all these years later being entrenched in their lives and being blocked by the hostility and judgment they faced. It’s under the guise of this actress coming to town who wants to tell the truth. She starts to unearth what really happened and it creates such tension and suspense about the past and the present and the character exploration of Gracie and Joe many years later.”
May December It could easily have been a salacious soap scandal, but in Haynes’s hands it becomes female melodrama of the highest order. Though this has long been Haynes’ specialty—so much so that when Birch’s script landed on Portman’s desk as a potential project for her to direct, she immediately agreed May December Haynes instead. “We had talked to each other about working together over the years, but this script really stood out,” Haynes recalls of his connection with Portman. “Everything about him made a strong first impression on me.”
It was the director who suggested his longtime collaborator Julianne Moore for the role of Gracie. “Talking to Natalie about the nuances, the gray areas, the discomfort, the moral ambiguity that this story brings out in you – and her interest in playing with the expectations and predictions that people can bring to her performance as an actor – she was so fearless and mischievous ‘” Haynes recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this amazing woman reminds me of someone else I adore.’
The two actresses had the difficult task of preparing to perform their performances in just 23 days of filming. Moore had to find different aspects of Gracie’s vocal rhythm (even at her older age, the character drifted noticeably, and at times unpleasantly, in and out of a childish lisp), and Portman had to identify the physicality that Elizabeth could begin to subtly appropriate. “It’s rare to find a story that centers such complex women in these two age groups,” notes Haynes.
However, May December, takes Haynes’ exploration of women’s inner lives to a new level in her exploration of morally compromised sexuality. It explores not only relationships that are legally classified as rape, but also family life, the secrets we keep, the lies we tell to survive, and the constant struggle to ever truly know someone , including yourself. “Women in different settings and eras will always be a place I want to return to,” Haynes reflects. “Most of them end up being domestic stories, and some of them might fall into the melodrama category.”
Haynes confirms that he drew inspiration for his work from classic Hollywood directors who made women and melodrama their heroes, especially Sirk. “It explores the challenges women have to find balance in their lives and the conflicting roles they are often asked to play as objects of desire and at the same time as mothers and caretakers of the family and the institution of marriage,” explains the director. . “They have to cope with all these complex demands coming from society. I believe this is a place where so much universal experience is concentrated.”
For his part, Haynes credits Sirk, who created such classics as Imitation of life (1959) and Written on the wind (1956), would have had a lot of fun with the story and the level of artificiality and social pressure that fuels the narrative. One thing Haynes took directly from the director in May December it’s the way he uses mirrors and reflections to comment on the characters’ intentions as well as how they perceive themselves and others. “It was really a process of retelling the story and what happens to people when they’re held up to a mirror and asked to look at themselves in a way that most of us don’t tend to do in our lives, especially when you’re so defensive about a hostile culture.” – he notes. “Especially when the animosity and questions raised about the choices made early in that relationship were legitimate, pressing issues that society and the legal system had every right to question.”
Haynes notes that he takes a more observational approach, with the camera often occupying the mirror itself and the actors acting directly into the lens as if it were their reflection. As a result, he says, “the film’s questions and changing preferences keep coming back to you as a viewer.”
Beyond the performances, framing and use of mirrors, there is another key element that helps reinforce the film’s issues of identity, guilt and melodrama – and that is the music, which is an adaptation and re-orchestration of Michel Legrand’s score by composer Marcelo Zarvos. for Joseph Losey Mediator (1971), a drama about a taboo romance. Haynes explains: “This score is so ahead of and beyond the main events that unfold in this particular storyline, even more alien than in May December, where there is a question of crime and guilt – you hear this music and think that this will be a crime drama, there will be a murder. The viewer is immediately put into a state of anxiety about where the story is heading, and one begins to read the details in the framing and acting of this film with such keen attention. The music continues to sweeten it and force these questions, but with a mischievous sense that this could be an enjoyable investigation while we watch it.”
The director initially thought about the music while reading the script, and regularly played Legrand’s music on set and throughout the editing process. “I thought the film should give the audience that invitation,” Haynes says of his desire to exploit the emotional effect of music. “We played it in the background in scenes without dialogue. We used it in the cuts and I shared it with my composer Marcelo early on and he said, “Oh my God, this is so exciting.” We ended up covering so many aspects of the original score that Marcelo adapted and added original music to it and then re-orchestrated it.”
This process may be a metaphor May December herself, taking a tabloid scandal and adopting Sirkian’s principles, only to re-orchestrate them with central performances from Portman, Moore and the emulated style of Haynes.