Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Notes on a Scandal: MAY DECEMBER

Todd Haynes is a modern master of melodrama, with films that thrive in the tension of societal norms straining to restrain his characters’ natural drives toward it. In his latest film May December, an actress arrives at the home of a family that was once the center of tabloid controversy in hopes of shadowing them for her latest movie role based on their scandal. The actress (Natalie Portman) has only surface-level questions to ask, and a kind of guileless confidence in her ability to soak up something real from the quotidian observations she’ll grok just by hanging around. The matriarch of the family (Julianne Moore), a dotty housewife with a flailing bakery business and a wispy lisping affect, just hopes the movie star won’t be rude (like Judge Judy), and that she’ll play fair with the facts of her life as she sees them. You see, her affair with her much younger husband (Charles Melton) started when he was in 7th grade. They got married after her release from prison, where she had their first child, and weathered a storm of national news attention. She doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with that. Now he’s barely cracked his mid-30s and their offspring are graduating high school. For his part, he really loves his teenage kids, but it’s difficult to reconcile the fact that these fresh-faced youngsters are now older than their dad was when they were born. As the movie draws out his hobby of raising caterpillars to release as butterflies, it’s clear he’s been stunted in his cocoon by the unacknowledged abuse that’s shaped the majority of his life. Meanwhile, when not interviewing the woman’s estranged first family, the actress hovers on the margins of family life for a few weeks, watching in scenes of live wire discomfort as the dysfunction inherent in this family dynamic ripples and bubbles beneath metric tons of denial. The homogenizing force of suburban normality is stretched to the breaking point for these people—and the Savannah setting gives it a sense of oceanfront Southern Gothic as two phonies circle each other and the rest are adrift in the consequences.

Haynes stages scenes with elaborate framing for straight-faced jaw-dropping confessions and twisting entanglements of exploitation. (In tone, it’s somehow the perfect equidistant midpoint between Douglas Sirk’s Eisenhower-era stiffness and John Waters’ lurid vulgarity, right next to Pedro Almodovar in its tightly controlled stylish displays of repressions and unspoken depravities of character.) The lines between actress and her subjects get blurry, especially as the women seem to trade traits—listen to how that lisp drifts between them!—and Haynes loads the frames with mirrors and reflections and cameras and lenses. It’s all about image in that ineffable way. Isn’t that a typically Haynes subject, though? Here’s another of his seductively unsettling melodramas about the tragedy of being unable to recognize your true self behind the artifice you’ve built up around yourself. Like the Barbie doll Carpenters in his experimental Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story or the frosty domestic noirs of his Mildred Pierce or Carol, or the suffocating Sirkian vibrancy in Far From Heaven, he’s once more pinning his characters down with empathetic archness. Here it’s simultaneously moving and at a distance, and often darkly hilarious, in a gripping style pulsing with raw emotion beneath the surface. He uses stinging, borrowed piano cues on the score and a kind of hazy softness to the frames, like he’s dredging up dark truths through the scrim of a 90s ripped-from-the-headlines made-for-TV movie. And yet, by Samy Burch’s emotionally complex screenplay setting the action of the story two decades past its central scandal, and making explicit the ways in which attempting to fictionalize such sensationalized real world melodrama inevitably falls short, it makes for a movie using that distancing effect to be more invested in the long ugly aftermath. That roils underneath the apparent, twisted normality that’s settled over the pain, and no empty gestures of family life or hollow Hollywood artifice can fill that emptiness.

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