The fabric of the film rips early in director Todd Haynes’ “May December.” During its opening moments, we’re watching the bustling, banal preparations for a summer barbecue at an upscale Savannah home when Julianne Moore’s harried hostess opens the fridge and suddenly, a thunderous cascade of piano chords overwhelms the soundtrack. It’s the kind of music you’d hear in a 1930s radio drama right before someone gets murdered. The camera comes crashing into her face with a wobbly zoom straight out of a cheesy 1970s docudrama and we brace ourselves for a shocking revelation. “I don’t think,” Moore gravely intones, “we’re going to have enough hot dogs.”
What just happened? What is this movie? The thrillingly discombobulating “May December” is the latest postmodern provocation from Haynes, a master semiotician who has spent the past three-and-a-half decades investigating the ways in which we process images and how our self-perceptions are shaped by storytelling. His breakthrough film, 1987’s audacious — and still illegal to screen — “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” was the original Barbie movie, telling the tragic tale of the pop singer’s struggle with anorexia using a cast comprised entirely of plastic dolls. “May December” is Haynes’ fifth collaboration with his muse Julianne Moore, and like their greatest hits “Safe” and “Far From Heaven,” it’s another entertaining and unnerving exploration of the gaps between the lives we live and the stories we tell ourselves.
I’ll try to explain. Natalie Portman stars as Elizabeth Berry, a popular television actress doing research for a role in an upcoming indie film based on a 1990s tabloid sensation. Twenty-odd years ago, a happily married, 36-year-old pet shop manager named Gracie Atherton (Moore) was arrested for having sex with a seventh grader who worked at her store. Insisting that they were in love, she had the little boy’s baby while she was in prison, then they married and had twins after Gracie got out. They’re still together to this day, living in the same island community just outside Savannah. Elizabeth comes calling right before their two youngest are about to graduate high school, a stressful enough weekend without some B-list celebrity traipsing around town asking questions about old sleeping dogs everyone would rather let lie.
All grown up and about to be an empty-nester at the age of 32, Gracie’s victim/husband Joe Yoo is touchingly portrayed by Charles Melton, who I’m told starred as Reggie on the CW’s horny Archie Comics adaptation “Riverdale.” Entirely guileless, he’s a big, musclebound slab of innocence who works at the hospital and breeds butterflies in the family room before setting them free when they come to maturity, a metaphor that’s a bit much even for a movie as arch as this one. Gracie dismissively refers to them as “his bugs.” She’s a piece of work, his wife, constantly asserting her helplessness as a form of control. With eggshell nerves and a pronounced lisp, this is one of Moore’s most overtly stylized performances, endlessly demonstrative yet also stubbornly unreadable.
She’s a case that Elizabeth the actress can’t quite crack, though not for lack of trying. “May December” is Portman’s most dazzling work yet, sidling up to Gracie and absorbing her mannerisms mid-conversation like a Method vampire. In any conventional movie, Elizabeth would be our audience surrogate, uncovering the tawdry secrets of the Atherton-Yoos. Yet Portman plays her as the most unhinged character in the story, snooping around under increasingly dubious motivations and lapsing into spells of erotic derangement. A scene in which she visits Gracie’s daughter’s drama class might be the funniest thing Haynes has ever filmed. When a class clown asks a cloddish question about shooting sex scenes, she calls his bluff by answering too honestly, Portman getting carried away and repeating the student’s name in a breathy whisper that had me convulsing with laughter.
The comedy in Samy Burch’s screenplay is usually a little drier than that. We start the movie assuming Elizabeth must be a well-respected actress, in part because of how the other characters respond to her but mostly because she’s played by Natalie Portman. It takes a while before we realize that Elizabeth is actually famous for playing a veterinarian on a dismal-sounding network drama called “Norah’s Ark.” The performance is peppered with details you can only get from someone who has been in the public eye for their entire adult life, like Elizabeth’s practiced way of accepting compliments with a polite indication that the conversation is over. Naturalism has never been Portman’s strong suit. She’s the kind of actress with whom you can usually see the wheels turning in her head, which is why her greatest performances, like “Jackie” or “Vox Lux,” are always characters in the process of giving performances of their own. Elizabeth spends the movie trying on so many affectations in order to quote-unquote solve the mystery of Gracie, we start wondering if there’s even an identity of her own under there to begin with.
Haynes stages most of Elizabeth and Gracie’s scenes with the two side-by-side, staring into mirrors, so we can better see Moore’s physicality bleeding into Portman’s. They often talk directly to the lens a la Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” and indeed, “May December” belongs to a rich tradition of great directors doing “Persona” riffs, like David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” or Robert Altman’s “3 Women.” (A fitting tribute, as Moore often credits seeing the latter at the Brattle Theatre during her Boston University days as what inspired her to become a film actress.) But there’s more going on here than mimicry and homage.
Burch’s screenplay is obviously inspired by the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, and the recent rush to relitigate famous ‘90s tabloid scandals via streaming documentaries and gross movies like “I, Tonya.” But self-conscious interruptions like that aforementioned hot dog scene, or Marcelo Zarvos’s intrusively campy score — itself a reorchestration of Michel Legrand’s music for Joseph Losey’s 1971 film “The Go-Between” — are Haynes’ way of jostling the audience out of our complacency, of reminding us how crassly our true crime culture turns people’s real-life traumas into entertainment. A big clue as to what the movie’s up to comes when Portman’s character mentions that her mother is a professor famous for a paper on epistemic relativism, and for all Elizabeth’s accumulation of mannerisms and minutiae she’s no closer to understanding Gracie than she was (or we were) at the beginning. Our actress is chastised at one point for referring to people as “cases,” and there are some that can’t be solved.