Feminine Appetites in Todd Haynes’s May December
Hannah Bonner on the Aesthetics of Tabloid Culture
In A.V. Marraccini’s book We the Parasites, Marraccini describes a critic’s relationship to a work of art as parasitic. Like female wasps which crawl into female figs, thus pollinating the fig’s inverted flower, so too do critics “learn to be by being [the artworks], by pushing into them and unfolding [their] wet wings.”
While it is not wasps but monarch larvae and pupae featured in the opening of Todd Haynes’s newest melodrama May December (2023), the parasitic analogy persists. Swap critic for actress and artwork for subject, both “learn to be by being.” In May December Natalie Portman is Elizabeth, an acclaimed Hollywood starlet in Savannah, Georgia, researching for a new role.
Her subject of study is Gracie Atherton-Yoo (played by Julianne Moore), a woman who achieved notoriety years ago when she was caught sleeping with Joe. At the time Gracie was 36, and Joe was 13, a seventh grader and the son of the only half-Korean family in the neighborhood. Twenty-four years later, Gracie and Joe (played by an extraordinarily understated and moving Charles Melton) are married with three children, and things, on the surface, seem perfect. Until Elizabeth arrives at their doorstep clutching a bottle of white wine and (unbeknownst to her) a box of excrement left at the Atherton-Yoo’s front door.
Such a scabrous story is the stuff that gives tabloid culture teeth.
Such a scabrous story is the stuff that gives tabloid culture teeth. While the May December team claims their film is not the story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau, the comparisons are undeniable. Letourneau was arrested in 1996 for second-degree child rape of Fualaau, her sixth grade student. She was 34 at the time of her arrest. In addition to these brute particulars, Haynes replicates more granular details of Letourneau within his film. Both Letourneau and Atherton-Yoo wear white sweatshirts in their police photos, comely and placid; both wear oversized white t-shirts while holding their infant children in tabloid photos; both clasp their hands under their chins in court, as in prayer. These women exude archetypal femininity: pink lipstick, perfect hair. They are mirror images of one another.
So, too, does Elizabeth mirror Gracie with disquieting precision. Clasping her notebook, Elizabeth records every fact, detail, and date: how Gracie met her first husband Tom, how Gracie and Joe met at a pet shop where he worked part time under her supervision, the color and brand of Gracie’s foundation and lipstick, the way Gracie’s eyes are “closed when they’re open.” But, as the film progresses, Elizabeth increasingly assumes Gracie’s posture, mannerisms, even the lisp and lilt of her voice. Portman doesn’t play such impersonation as camp; in one of her career-best performances, Portman slides into Moore’s affect as easily as one might a silk dress.
During a scene in which Gracie’s younger daughter tries on graduation dresses, Haynes frames Elizabeth and Gracie in the mirror’s reflection. As Gracie relaxes, draping her manicured hands over her legs, so too does Elizabeth assume the same pose. In Madeleine E., Gabriel Blackwell’s immersive study of Vertigo, he writes “The mirror is where the self loses its integrity—one looks into the mirror and sees one’s self, but this self is experienced as Other (for instance, one does not look out of its eyes but instead into them.” The mirror allows the women to openly study one another and perfect their own performances, while also allowing the audience access to the ways in which Elizabeth so carefully (re)constructs Gracie’s effete demeanor.
Mirrors abound in May December. While the comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) are evident, the film also evokes Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), another narrative in which mirrors serve as a way to mimic and merge both mannerisms and identities. In Haynes’s hands, Mary Kay Letourneau is the invisible third woman, a specter haunting the sidelines of her own now fictionalized story, a story that elides explanation or rationale, no matter how hard we might try.
Though Elizabeth repeatedly states that she is searching for something “true” and “real” as she talks to Gracie and the various people in her orbit, Haynes’s formalist flourishes illustrate the artifice of Elizabeth’s endeavor. Hard lighting, Marcelo Zarvos’s dramatic piano score, and recurring zooms formally disrupt any illusion of realism within the diegesis. Truth or meaning is elusive, unable to penetrate through the veneer of pastiche moves indebted to Classical Hollywood melodrama, a genre Haynes knows well, as evidenced from his previous films like Far from Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015). In some ways, these formal choices evoke the aesthetics of tabloid culture: splashy, showy, attention-grabbing fodder.
In Haynes’s hands, Mary Kay Letourneau is the invisible third woman, a specter haunting the sidelines of her own now fictionalized story.
I’ve always thought of the zoom as a pressure point: of attention, focus, or intensity. But in May December the pressure or focus feels misplaced, darkly comical. In Gracie’s first scene preparing for a neighborhood barbecue, she walks to the refrigerator as the camera swiftly zooms into a close-up on her face. “We don’t have enough hot dogs,” she flatly states as the cinematography and impassioned score tonally undercut the emotional stakes of such a seemingly benign claim. However, these histrionic sonic and visual cues coupled with the quotidian dialogue convey the ongoing unease of witnessing a union born out of predation.
For a woman to be seen or perceived is both a blessing and a curse. In John Berger’s seminal text he notes that women are “first and foremost, a sight.” “Women are there to feed an appetite,” he continues, “not to have any of their own.” Yet, May December troubles Berger’s thesis. “[Elizabeth’s] just everywhere I look,” Gracie complains to Joe, “and for what?” While Gracie both welcomes, and bristles under, Elizabeth’s surveilling eye, Joe also feeds the visual and sexual appetites of these two white women. Joe and his children are the only characters of color in their neighborhood, further accentuating his otherness from his wife.
Gracie and now Elizabeth project sexual prowess and power onto him in ways that are decidedly racialized, and undeserved. “I don’t care how old you were. Who was in charge?” Gracie demands when Joe finally voices discomfort at their beginnings. “You seduced me,” she insists with chilling certainty. So, too, does Elizabeth muse that as a 13-year-old, Joe’s photographs display a “quiet confidence,” a line that suggests she has not just adopted Gracie’s mannerisms but her mindset as well. The trifecta of gazes—gendered, sexual, and racial—are like a reflection in a vanity table on full display.
To re-evoke A.V. Marraccini, Elizabeth does learn by being Gracie, though the takeaway is unclear. In becoming Gracie, Elizabeth participates in other transgressions that, while not illegal, call her character into question. However, May December is ultimately uninterested in the interior motives or morals of its two female characters but in human behavior itself: the unforgivable, pernicious, or narcissistic ways in which we seek comfort, attention, or fame. The delight of this film is how we are forced to sit with such bad behavior; the discomfort is in our appetite for this particular pleasure.