Is Might December camp? Todd Haynes’s tragicomic drama, defined.


Within the opening moments of Todd Haynes’s Might December, scandalous tabloid subject-turned-homemaker Gracie (Julianne Moore) opens a fridge, dramatically accompanied by a sudden piano sting and an ominous digicam zoom.

The twist? They won’t have sufficient scorching canine for his or her upcoming cookout.

If that strikes you as humorous, you’re not alone. It is a movie that reportedly had audiences laughing out loud throughout its debut, a narrative the New York Instances referred to as “probably the most enjoyable movie” at Cannes 2023. And but, it’s additionally a movie primarily based on the horrifying real-life story of a sexual predator and her little one sufferer.

Viewers have been debating since its December 1 platform launch. Is it camp? Is it presupposed to be humorous? Is Natalie Portman a foul actor or is she simply superb at enjoying a foul one?

These are all attention-grabbing questions to think about, however they arguably obscure the most important query of all: What does it imply that audiences are laughing at a narrative as darkish as this one — and does that say extra concerning the movie or its viewers? Is Might December critiquing the exploitative nature of media, or is it an instance of the very factor it seeks to deconstruct?

[Note: This review contains spoilers.]

Might December adapts a real-life tabloid scandal

Might December fictionalizes the story of Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. The pair met when she was a instructor and he was in second grade. After years of plying Fualaau with items and particular consideration, Letourneau grew to become pregnant by Fualaau when he was simply 13. Convicted of rape, she was launched after simply three months however instantly violated parole to change into pregnant with Fualaau’s second little one. In 2005, after serving a seven-year sentence throughout which she continued her relationship with Fualaau, Letourneau married him. The couple separated in 2019, shortly earlier than Letourneau’s loss of life from most cancers.

This crime can be correctly considered at present as that of a kid predator who efficiently spent years grooming her goal. Within the ’90s, nonetheless, the media framed it as a star-crossed love story, permitting Letourneau to direct the narrative, a lot in order that even Fualaau’s family defended her, insisting the pair had been in love and that Fualaau was “extraordinarily mature” for his age.

The movie picks up the place our cultural reminiscence leaves off. The fictional Gracie and her sufferer, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), have been collectively 24 years. Nonetheless residing in Savannah, Georgia, the place the scandal occurred, they’re making ready for the commencement day of their youthful daughter and son. Into this dynamic saunters a fictional movie star, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman). However Elizabeth, who’s attempting to get to know Gracie as a way to play her for an upcoming movie adaptation, isn’t an goal observer.

Haynes’s directorial selections make it extraordinarily clear that this relationship was removed from rosy, indicting not simply Letourneau however the onlookers, too — the tabloid media who hyped the story as a romance, the Hollywood machine that made it the stuff of Lifetime film lore, and the real-life audiences who ate it up. To do this, he makes use of a tonal strategy that means his three principal characters are in three totally different films throughout the film, every one clashing with the opposite.

Might December makes use of clashing views to maintain us discomfited

Gracie is inside a film about star-crossed soulmates who discover one another in opposition to all odds — a film the place she is the hero and the entire world is rooting for her. The recent canine scene is our first inform that Gracie’s world is a delusion. It’s the form of overly dramatic stinger we would discover in a ’90s made-for-TV film, utilized to one thing vapid. In Gracie’s narcissistic viewpoint, nonetheless, little issues change into magnified. At the moment, her tightly managed world may very well be disrupted by lacking scorching canine; tomorrow, it may very well be one thing a lot worse.

Her lawyer reveals to Elizabeth at one level that Gracie’s associates are all Norma Desmonding her — humoring her makes an attempt to set herself up as a baker by ordering desserts they don’t eat, simply to offer her one thing to do. Gracie clings to this imaginative and prescient of herself; the smallest disturbance leaves her sobbing, determined for consolation from Joe. She depends on him for every little thing, and he shoulders every little thing from emotional help to parenting duties.

But Joe, very similar to Fualaau towards the top of his relationship with Letourneau, undergoes an awakening through the movie. Over a sequence of heartbreaking moments fantastically acted by Melton, we see him slowly come to know what the remainder of us already do: He was a sufferer, not a prepared participant, within the “love story” deliberate out for him by Letourneau. In a single devastating scene, he watches his son smoke a joint with a glance of palpable craving, reminding viewers that he by no means obtained the possibility to do one thing so mundane as a teen as a result of he was robbed of a traditional adolescence.

Melton and Portman walk outside with two dogs.

Charles Melton and Natalie Portman in Might December.
François Duhamel/Courtesy of Netflix

Of our three totally different narratives, solely Joe’s is an correct reflection of actuality. That actuality is stuffed with troubling battle; Joe’s devastation at his misplaced childhood mixes with pleasure in and love for his youngsters. He strikes by the movie with quiet look after his youngsters, for Gracie, for the butterflies he’s been nursing, serving to shield them till they, like his personal youngsters, can depart their cocoons and fly away.

As he begins to grasp his state of affairs, Joe seeks assist and understanding from Elizabeth; later, he unsuccessfully pleads for assist from Gracie herself. However any hope that Elizabeth is usually a ethical arbiter right here shortly dies. As an alternative, throughout the tableau of views on Gracie’s crime, she represents the tabloid view, one which sees the “Might-December romance” as not solely surprising however titillating — in the end erotic somewhat than harmful. She reminds us all through that in actuality, Vili Fualaau was a sufferer, not simply of Letourneau, however of a media machine and a society that was fast to sexualize him.

As soon as we perceive this, Portman’s efficiency turns into something however phoned-in. She turns into the important thing to unlocking the entire film.

Portman’s efficiency is essential to understanding Haynes’s undertaking

If this had been a typical cautionary story, Portman’s character can be the automobile for the viewers’s ethical outrage — the character we’re allowed to narrate to and empathize with who serves as our tour information by the distorted panorama of Gracie and Joe’s relationship.

However Elizabeth winds up aiding and abetting the distortion. Portman performs her like an ingenue, a starlet who’s nonetheless in her starlet mode, although on the planet of the movie, she’s an business veteran of 36 — the identical age Gracie was when her relationship with Joe got here to mild.

Over the course of the movie, she falls for the fantasy of turning into Gracie. She smiles flirtatiously at teen boys. She will get misplaced in a wildly inappropriate description of filming intercourse to a bunch of excessive schoolers. Later, she pantomimes intercourse on the literal scene of the crime — within the pet store stockroom the place Gracie and Joe had been in the end caught.

In a single charged scene, she permits Gracie to do her make-up and reacts to their intimacy with a homoerotic mixture of repulsion and elation. Finally, she has intercourse with Joe — then, lastly, totally transforms into the older seductress by performing considered one of Gracie’s love letters as a monologue.

Moore helps Portman stir while they are baking in the kitchen.

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman serving homoerotic vibes (however don’t name it camp!).
Courtesy of Netflix

The extra she is drawn into this model of the story, the extra callous Elizabeth turns into. After viewing footage of 13-year-olds auditioning for the function of Joe within the film she’s in, she complains to the director that they aren’t “attractive sufficient.” When Joe angrily insists to her that his life isn’t a narrative, she says calmly, “There’s no have to get so labored up about it” — precisely the form of factor Gracie herself may say. She turns into totally swept up in a narrative that’s all about her and her repressed sexual wishes coming to the fore.

The issue audiences have had in parsing what Portman is doing reveals simply how good her efficiency is: She’s so plausible that not everybody believes she’s appearing. (Portman first championed the script to Haynes, so it’s seemingly that she was fascinated by the layered dynamics at play right here lengthy earlier than anybody else.)

Our pissed off expectations of Portman’s function are additionally tied to confusion over the movie itself. With two divas every getting carried away with the thought of themselves because the hero of a fantastical (however in reality disintegrating) love story, it’s simple to see how claims have arisen that Might December is a piece of camp. It doesn’t assist that Haynes has a penchant for lush, indulgent dramas (Velvet Goldmine, Carol) that typically nudge the campy line between melodrama and farce.

So, to essentially perceive Might December, we’ve got to grasp the methods wherein it may very well be camp — however in the end isn’t.

Might December isn’t camp, however fascinated by it by the lens of camp is helpful

Camp is what occurs when societal expectations collide with a personality or a persona who can’t carry out these expectations convincingly. As an alternative, their try at efficiency unwittingly reveals and magnifies the artifice of these expectations. Camp is carefully associated to queer id and efficiency, which expose the artifice of heteronormativity. Gender and sexual deviance of all types are likewise camp-adjacent as a result of they typically reveal how absurd the mechanics of repression might be.

In Gracie’s case, she is a real sexual deviant who’s deeply invested in adhering to societal guidelines. They assist validate her model of the narrative. However as a result of she’s a real deviant, in the end unable to carry out normative social habits, she breaks the phantasm of normalcy in ways in which border on hysterical.

An ideal instance of that is the second Gracie gushes to Elizabeth a couple of card Joe gave her years earlier, that includes a banal love observe. Then she casually provides that the cardboard was a classroom project, reminding Elizabeth and the viewers that Joe was a seventh grader. It’s a hilarious, deeply disturbing second. These two feelings converging is the essence of camp.

For one thing to actually be camp, nonetheless, its presentation has to align with the destabilizing worldview. If the topic, the digicam, or the course is just too realizing, the impact can change into satirical, and in some instances cringe. (That is additionally, by the way, why the Met Gala “camp” theme was a catastrophe; you’ll be able to’t plan camp.) However Haynes by no means permits the substitute, fantasist narratives of Gracie and Elizabeth to overshadow the anguish Melton conveys. As Elizabeth turns into extra entranced by Gracie’s story, her efficiency as Gracie turns into extra campy and fewer efficient. In the meantime, Gracie’s efficiency of the function of excellent housewife fails to persuade anybody however herself.

When Joe lastly confronts Gracie concerning the fact of their lives collectively, the scene is something however camp. It’s a deeply troubling reminder that society gave its stamp of approval to a relationship that left him with lifelong trauma. Including to the discomfort of this second is that screenwriter Samy Burch makes use of dialogue from a jaw-dropping real-life 2018 interview with Australian journalist Matt Doran. Within the section, the grownup Letourneau and Fualaau have a tense trade wherein she tells him repeatedly, in entrance of a shocked Doran, that he was “the boss” of their relationship.

Exterior of the movie, it’s simple to be aghast by this clip. Inside the movie, this second shatters the thought of “youthful boy pursuing an older lady” as a authentic narrative. “You seduced me,” Gracie tells Joe with full confidence. It’s terrifying how easy Moore makes enjoying a fictional Letourneau appear.

However the movie isn’t actually that excited about condemning Gracie — what can be the purpose? As an alternative, its sharpest castigation rests with Elizabeth. In a single function, she is ready to embody the amoral self-interest of the tabloids, Hollywood, the general public who consumed the story as leisure, and everybody round Fualaau who left him to his destiny.

We would ask whether or not Haynes himself is a part of that net of exploitation — in any case, isn’t Might December a coy remedy of a scandal?

Sure and no. One operate of the movie’s funnier moments is to permit the viewers its share of nervous laughter, an exhalation amid our escalating discomfort. If Might December had been much less self-aware, it would belong within the class of camp or failed melodrama; if it had been much less earnest, it would earn the title of tongue-in-cheek satire. However in the end, the film’s discordant aesthetic isn’t coy. It’s about revealing the nightmarish circus that Joe has survived with quiet resilience.

And it’s about us: The circus attendees, arriving with popcorn — ready to giggle, when maybe we ought to be in mourning.


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