Cannes 2023: Todd Haynes’ “May December”
Twice Golden Globe-nominated director Todd Haynes brings his fifth offering to the Cannes Film Festival. May December follows actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) who travels to Maine to research the life of a former scandal-plagued woman, Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) in order to play her in a film. At first glimpse, Atherton-Yoo lives a regular life as a housewife, albeit with a much-younger husband, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), raising their children. However, the not-so-regular relationship began two decades ago – she was 36, he was 13. Consequently, Atherton-Yoo was convicted of rape and went to prison.
In a press conference at the Cannes Festival, the Golden Globe-winning actresses are present to promote the movie. May December marks Moore’s fifth collaboration with Haynes. “I feel like I understand Todd. I feel like I see his point of view,” says Moore. “The minute I read Safe (1995), I was like, oh, I see exactly how this is, I know exactly how this should be. And I hadn’t met him before, and I went into the audition, and I thought, if I do this and he doesn’t like it, I’m not the right person, that I’m not seeing what he’s writing. And it turned out that I was seeing what he was writing, and I feel like that’s continued to happen for one reason or another. I don’t know why. I feel so fortunate to have had this creative partnership. It’s something that you wish for as an actor, and it often doesn’t come true. And the fact that I’ve had this with Todd is unbelievably meaningful and moving to me. So, I’m forever and ever grateful.”
Haynes returns the compliment. “I learn things from watching Julie in every single film we do together. There is always something that I can’t even determine in the room shooting that you see on the film itself with her. It comes with incredible experience, knowledge, and intuition,” he says. “It’s just something that I believe she had from the very beginning. A lot of my films are about when you don’t say everything on the page or show everything in the scene, and you need a space for audiences to be encouraged and interested in filling in. And this is the kind of actor that makes that possible.”
Portman, who instigated the project, says of her role, “As an actress, it feels like I had a kind of lifetime of research leading up to this.” In fact, Portman felt such a connection to the role and to the story that it was she who sent Haynes the script. Haynes says, “Natalie sent me the script in 2020. It was in the middle of Covid, and I read it and was immediately captivated by how incredibly restrained the way of observing the complexity of this story and all of the characters. It created this anxiety and excitement about how you interpret the story.”
May December showcases another fearless performance by Moore, evidently unafraid of taboo subjects. She says, “An age gap is one thing, but a relationship between an adult and a child is something else entirely. And her transgression, I believe personally, is so enormous that she buries it in this idea, her own identity, in her own performative femininity, where she cast this young person, this child, as a male figure, and therefore more dominant than her. So that, to me, was unbelievably complicated and compelling.”
She continues on the idea of inappropriateness. “When is age inappropriate? It’s
inappropriate when people are in different places developmentally. When someone is not an adult. Then you’re like, well, this is not appropriate, and this is why we have boundaries around that. That doesn’t mean that people don’t transgress and haven’t transgressed historically, even in terms of arranged marriages and stuff that we would deem now to be wildly inappropriate,” Moore says. “But that’s why human beings have boundaries. And in this particular movie, too, you see Gracie’s transgressions as well as everybody else’s. The reason this movie feels so dangerous watching it is that people don’t know where anyone’s boundaries are. And so it feels scary. When you’re in a social situation, somebody does something wildly inappropriate, you’re like, why do I feel so uncomfortable? I really feel uncomfortable. I want to get out of here. It’s because someone has transgressed a social or emotional boundary, and you feel unsafe.
“That’s what Todd has captured so beautifully in this film, which I think is most compelling to me, and that is what [screenwriter] Sammy [Burch] was writing about too. And that also didn’t seem to be apparent initially. When I first read the script, I was like, oh, okay. And then you get into it, and you’re like, wow, this feels dangerous! But it is about that kind of transgression.”