At the Cannes Film Festival premiere of “May December” this week, something happened in the first few minutes that put director Todd Haynes at ease. It took place at the end of the movie’s second scene, as Gracie (Julianne Moore) gets ready for a family barbecue that will be attended by Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a famous actress who is preparing to play Gracie in a film.
As Gracie crosses her kitchen and opens her fridge, Haynes zooms in on Moore and plays a dramatic music cue. The viewer is on high alert: Something significant is about to happen! Instead, Moore announces mildly, to no one in particular, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” And the Cannes audience burst out laughing.
That’s exactly the reaction Haynes was hoping for. Though plenty of viewers will read “May December” in a straightforward way, the subject matter is so juicy that Haynes more than welcomes a playful interpretation.
“I was encouraged that the audience felt permission to enjoy the film,” he told me over coffee, “and appreciate it at the same time.”
Haynes may be understating things: “May December” is the most fun movie that’s played at Cannes this year, a well-reviewed entertainment that fest-goers have been quoting nonstop since its premiere. There is a whiff of tabloid scandal at its core, since Gracie is loosely based on Mary Kay Letourneau, the teacher convicted in 1997 of raping her sixth-grade student Vili Fualaau, whose baby she gave birth to in jail and whom she later married. Gracie and her husband, Joe (Charles Melton), have a similar back story, but when Elizabeth travels to their Savannah, Ga., home to shadow them for a week, they present her with a picture-perfect image of long-married domestic bliss.
Still, the strength of their union is predicated on never truly revisiting its origin, and as Elizabeth pokes, prods and asks invasive questions, theirs is a marriage under siege. Gracie will do whatever she has to in order to keep her family together, but Elizabeth is just as determined to crack her facade, and as both women face off in a series of electric encounters, the self-interest that motivates them is often so craven that you can’t help but laugh.
“As we were cutting it, it felt funnier than I really knew even reading or shooting the movie,” Haynes said. “We didn’t play it for laughs — it just has a sardonic wit about it.”
Does Haynes agree with the critics who’ve called the film campy? “That was never, ever a term I applied to the script or style of shooting,” he said, though he understood why writers might be tempted to use the word: “‘Camp’ is maybe a too catchall term these days for an excited state of reading things, where you’re encouraged to read something against itself at times. And that’s exactly what I hoped would happen, especially with a sense of pleasure involved, and amusement.”
In the festival’s biggest bidding war, Netflix prevailed with an $11 million price that should presage a major awards campaign for Portman, who makes Elizabeth’s fully committed insincerity so compelling.
“She was so invigorated and excited — like mischievously so — to play with the expectations that people would bring to the movie,” Haynes said. “At first you think Elizabeth will be our comfortable way in to this sordid back story, and then you start to really re-examine who she is and feel that she is not a reliable narrator.”
The film could also be an awards breakout moment for Melton, whose Joe comes to the fore in the final act as he movingly scrutinizes the life path he was locked into as the boy at the center of a tabloid scandal. “We were so lucky to find him for this,” Haynes said of the actor, previously best known for “Riverdale.” (Between Melton and the “Elvis” star Austin Butler — last year’s Croisette breakout — the CW-to-Cannes pipeline has become a real thing.)
Haynes has been juggling his duties on “May December” with a career retrospective in Paris that has highlighted films like “Carol,” “Far From Heaven” and “Safe” (the latter two also starring Moore), and he has welcomed each as a distraction from the other. “One has to filter it a bit just to survive it all, and it’s heady looking back at my whole creative life and history,” he said. “I would be in pools of tears otherwise.”
The retrospective will soon end with a screening of “May December,” and that feels fitting: This is the most mainstream film Haynes has yet made, but it’s still packed with thematic layers, and Haynes welcomes any interpretation you’ve got, be it serious or funny.
“If there’s a thinking process that runs parallel to watching the movie, that’s superb,” he said.