May December Elizabeth

May December

Maybe read this after watching the movie. I’m not going to reveal anything really, but May December is a film that was fun to experience fresh. Todd Haynes makes melodramas, and the rollercoaster of a melodrama is a big part of their appeal. It’s fun to take that ride again after you’ve already experienced it, but there’s nothing like your first time. Melodramas are just thrillers where the stakes are emotional rather than mortal, and who wants a thriller spoiled?


Elizabeth is a monster.

I’m sorry. I misspelled that word.

Elizabeth is an actor. She is preparing a role in an upcoming film by spending time with the family the film is about. She is present for birthday parties and graduation celebration lunches. She asks personal questions. She even hangs out around town talking to the family’s neighbors and asking them what they think about her subjects. Her proddings are beyond impolite. They are vampiric.

You can watch May December and not realize Elizabeth is a monster because the woman Elizabeth is going to play in the upcoming film is a convicted sex abuser who seduced and molested a thirteen-year-old boy and then, when she was released from prison, married him. The “May December” couple continues to live in their hometown where they rub shoulders with the people whose lives were affected by their affair. The film seduces the audience into the tabloid nature of the family’s life and then, in a series of deftly executed scenes, condemns you and Elizabeth for your arrogance, voyeurism, and self-centeredness. As Haynes began to pull the rug out from under me in the film’s final act, and as he continued to do so pulling out more rugs that I didn’t even realize I was standing on, I laughed as hard as I’ve laughed at any film I saw this year.

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore are spectacular in this film. They are each giving exactly the right timbre of performance to give the audience exactly the kind of experience the filmmakers want them to have. This movie wouldn’t work if these two women were played any differently, and the genius of their performances is that you don’t realize they are playing you, like con artists, the whole time. Acting is the most difficult part of a film to see because most acting that makes it into movies is very good and it’s the most obvious part of the production. Acting is what you are watching. It’s the handkerchief waving in front of your eyes while the magic trick is happening. And this is a movie about acting. It’s about how acting tricks you into thinking, feeling, and accepting things you would never, ever allow in a sober, rational moment. It’s incredible.

Why is Elizabeth a monster? Because she consumes these people and converts the eternal mystery of their persons into pablum to make a buck. Does that mean all artists are nefarious? No. But it doesn’t mean that the temptation is always there, that when an artist is skilled at what they do, they risk losing grasp of their own humanity in pursuit of their artistic ambition. When your calling is to communicate the majesty and mystery of life to others, you should not reduce those in your charge to something you use for your own benefit. That is abuse even before you subject an audience to it, and then you waste the audience’s life as well. We should have no patience for these kinds of flim-flam “artists” who take advantage of us. We should call them what they are – monsters.

For all its lurid trappings, May December is not trash. It’s a cold drink splashed in your face, a slap across the cheek. That’s the kind of thing you would’ve seen in melodramas in the past. May December is a shade more subtle than that, and boy is it fun.

Maybe read this after watching the movie. I’m not going to reveal anything really, but May December is a film that was fun to experience fresh. Todd Haynes makes melodramas, and the rollercoaster of a melodrama is a big part of their appeal. It’s fun to take that ride again after you’ve already experienced it, but there’s nothing like your first time. Melodramas are just thrillers where the stakes are emotional rather than mortal, and who wants a thriller spoiled?


Elizabeth is a monster.

I’m sorry. I misspelled that word.

Elizabeth is an actor. She is preparing a role in an upcoming film by spending time with the family the film is about. She is present for birthday parties and graduation celebration lunches. She asks personal questions. She even hangs out around town talking to the family’s neighbors and asking them what they think about her subjects. Her proddings are beyond impolite. They are vampiric.

You can watch May December and not realize Elizabeth is a monster because the woman Elizabeth is going to play in the upcoming film is a convicted sex abuser who seduced and molested a thirteen-year-old boy and then, when she was released from prison, married him. The “May December” couple continues to live in their hometown where they rub shoulders with the people whose lives were affected by their affair. The film seduces the audience into the tabloid nature of the family’s life and then, in a series of deftly executed scenes, condemns you and Elizabeth for your arrogance, voyeurism, and self-centeredness. As Haynes began to pull the rug out from under me in the film’s final act, and as he continued to do so pulling out more rugs that I didn’t even realize I was standing on, I laughed as hard as I’ve laughed at any film I saw this year.

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore are spectacular in this film. They are each giving exactly the right timbre of performance to give the audience exactly the kind of experience the filmmakers want them to have. This movie wouldn’t work if these two women were played any differently, and the genius of their performances is that you don’t realize they are playing you, like con artists, the whole time. Acting is the most difficult part of a film to see because most acting that makes it into movies is very good and it’s the most obvious part of the production. Acting is what you are watching. It’s the handkerchief waving in front of your eyes while the magic trick is happening. And this is a movie about acting. It’s about how acting tricks you into thinking, feeling, and accepting things you would never, ever allow in a sober, rational moment. It’s incredible.

Why is Elizabeth a monster? Because she consumes these people and converts the eternal mystery of their persons into pablum to make a buck. Does that mean all artists are nefarious? No. But it doesn’t mean that the temptation is always there, that when an artist is skilled at what they do, they risk losing grasp of their own humanity in pursuit of their artistic ambition. When your calling is to communicate the majesty and mystery of life to others, you should not reduce those in your charge to something you use for your own benefit. That is abuse even before you subject an audience to it, and then you waste the audience’s life as well. We should have no patience for these kinds of flim-flam “artists” who take advantage of us. We should call them what they are – monsters.

For all its lurid trappings, May December is not trash. It’s a cold drink splashed in your face, a slap across the cheek. That’s the kind of thing you would’ve seen in melodramas in the past. May December is a shade more subtle than that, and boy is it fun.

Portrait of Fuller Seminary alum Elijah Davidson

Elijah Davidson is Co-Director of Brehm Film and Senior Film Critic. Subscribe to Come & See, his weekly newsletter that guides you through the greatest films ever made, and find more of his work at elijahdavidson.com.

Originally published

December 10, 2023

The Holdovers is a wonderful Christmas film. I predict it will become a regular holiday guest for many.