It’s Graduation: May December

Photo: Francois Duhamel/courtesy of Netflix

Immediately I’m reminded of an old grad school adage, grad school being a place where people hook up and linger, separate from dragged-along spouses, discover spouses to drag off hence: if you stay together long enough, people forget how you got together. In a world whose cyclic temporality disappears its own witnesses, time tends to smooth the minor scandals of once being someone’s cohort fellow or even teaching assistant, until outrage fades and every “partner” is as nondescript as the term itself; we had only to look at the wives of our advisors for proof.

Under what conditions does longevity legitimize a relationship? How much of an initial dynamic will haunt what follows, even after years of ostensible calm? The phrase forgive and forget is a mismatched set, pronounced as if one unwittingly entails the other, when forgetting is just as often the product of forward momentum when forgiveness is impossible. I’d say this is all a bit immaterial, only “graduation” is the narrative and thematic focal point of May December, Todd Haynes’s melodramatic reenactment of the Mary Kay Letourneau case meets All About Eve (1950) meets Persona (1966). Throughout the film, graduation (as event, as trope; moving from one degree to the next, successful completion, training) competes with maturationsee Joe’s passion for rearing monarch butterfliesfor best overall conceit; each is more than window dressing to the present drama of Elizabeth’s unwelcome investigations. What Haynes builds is less a trick mirror than a kaleidoscope, to refract a thought in all directions.

Grace Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) lives in a hazy coastal community outside Savannah, baking cakes and raising her soon-to-be matriculated twins with her husband, Joe (Charles Melton). Formerly her 13-year-old coworker at Telfair Pets, Joe is now 36, the same age as Grace when she was sentenced to prison for statutory rape and the same age as actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who’s been cast to play Grace in an independent film. When Elizabeth arrives on Tybee Island to research the role, her temporary immersion into Grace’s town and family is our portal to the world of the film: her outsider status not only an echo of our own tabloid voyeurism, but a spotlight on the foreignness one feels even at the heart of things. 

Portman’s Elizabeth is slight and husky-voiced; TV-famous, but eager to put her Juilliard training to use. She doesn’t want to understand Grace so much as anatomize her, brazenly aping the clasp of her hands or casting her chin at an observed angle. Molly Haskell describes the combined subject/object slippage and the transparency/opacity paradox implicit to May December’s many mirror shots: “In Haynes’s films the act of looking (and we are not always sure who is looking at whom) introduces a note of uncertainty […] Women constantly consult their own reflections, sometimes glancingly and sometimes probingly, as if to ask, ‘Who am I to myself; who am I to others?’” Nowhere is this uncertainty clearer than May December’s GRWM (get ready with me) scene, where Haynes hybridizes Persona’s enigmatic mirror shot with a POV typical of Vogue’s Celebrity Beauty content. First, we see Portman and Moore’s faces share the “mirror,” where the glass’s perspective is collapsed with the camera. When Grace suggests applying her own makeup directly to Elizabeth instead, she brings her face-to-face in profile, and the atmosphere shifts in accordance with the compositionbut not only to the kind of teased intimacy Haynes describes in his annotation of the scene. If Elizabeth was the artist observing from a critical distance, now she’s the canvas under Grace’s hand, and the object of her appraisal. Asked about her parents, Elizabeth offers that they’re both academics; her mother wrote a book on epistemic relativism, a philosophical concept that emphasizes the variability of context and perspective when it comes to judging, say, truth claims. She doesn’t explain this to Graceshe pretends, I think, to performatively summon scare quotes around the phrase, feigning gee-whiz unfamiliarity. Grace deadpans, “My mother wrote a great recipe for a blueberry cobbler.” Hers is a pretense to differencesee how I grew up?but her counterpoint actually demonstrates an intuitive understanding of context-based assessment: according to their respective conditions, both mothers are writers.

Grace knows what it is to be the sole arbiter of one’s reality. The power and the isolation. When Joe comes to her choked, rattled, wanting to talk about the past, she excises inviolable facts as ruthlessly as she snipped foliage from a lily stalk at flower arranging class: I don’t like this part. When a completed cake order is unceremoniously canceled, Joe finds Grace caterwauling in bed. “I hate things like that!” She sobs. Like what? Unbidden things? Uncontrollable things?

And when their oldest daughter, Honor (Piper Curda), takes a spiteful guess at Grace’s choice of graduation presentand we’re primed to hear her out, having witnessed Grace unconsciously body-shame her youngest in a fitting roomshe gets this close to losing it: “You try going through life without a scale and see how that goes.” For Grace, life without a scale of one’s own would leave her vulnerable to external criteria, external judgments, all that she’d prefer to keep behind the folded edge of a keepsake photograph, just out of frame.

At different points, in two big scenes, both Elizabeth and Grace (or Grace conjured through Elizabeth) speak about losing the line. Elizabeth changes the air density of a high school black box theater as she tells the drama class about performing in sex scenes: but whether the affect is pleasure or detachment, it’s all pretending. Later, Joe presents Elizabeth with an illicit artifact of his and Grace’s courtship: her handwritten letter in a creased pink envelope. Haynes has described building the entire film around the monologue that issues from this letter, starting from the notion of Ingrid Thulin’s direct address in Bergman’s Winter Light (1963) and reverse-engineering an image path through the language of mirrors to land there. Elizabeth’s unbroken recitation of the letterin her preliminary stab at Grace’s voiceis the culmination of the phenomenological exercise she began by shuddering in ecstasy on the pet store’s stock room stairs. This is the “real” to which she desperately aspires in the film’s meta ending, by which point the spell of imagined access to Grace’s always-opaque interiority is broken.

Ultimately, it’s Joe’s interiority that the film most compassionately studies. In one scene, Joe, who can barely finish a sentence (“Girls were never…”), goes long on the process of monarch preservation, the importance of attachment to milkweed. With he and Elizabeth back-lit in the screened-in sunroom, it’s obvious the way one cage nests inside another. We wonder how Joe came to be so unprotected; how his growth was interfered upon, subtended, rerouted; how unlikely it is for him to ever rejoin the population unscathed.

The morning of graduation, Joe releases a fully hatched monarch into the air. No one seems to know where Grace is. Momentarily superimposed in the sliding door, Joe’s reflection mediates backward and forward at once: we see through to the kitchen island inside and to the water and horizon beyond; between them, Joe’s silhouette is pressed like a preserved bug, solid and diaphanous. His daughter Mary (Elizabeth Yu) emerges from the deep of the house in the white ceremony dress she’s picked to wear under her robe. For a few seconds, we see them share the frame, not yet speaking, each holding their own hands. Joe watches where the monarch went, the air where it just was and now isn’t, and Mary, watching him watching, is poised to fly away herself, slower but no less conclusively. In May December, the language of mirrors strains to multiply itself to the magnitude of Joe’s sorrow and pleasure and accumulated loss. We don’t know if he sees himself in the twins crossing the stage, only that the image makes him cry.