Serpentine in its plotting, queasily unsettling in its subject matter, and very, very funny, Todd Haynes’s latest picture is as deft a tonal juggling act as you will see anywhere this year. May December, which takes as its jumping-off point the lip-smacking, prurient fascination of a tabloid scandal, digs into the parasitic process employed by an actor creating a character. A silkily venomous Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth, a well-known actor who is visiting Savannah, Georgia, to gather material for her next film. She is set to play a real-life local celebrity, wife and mother Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore). Gracie hit the headlines two decades before for a notorious romance with her now husband Joe (Charles Melton, excellent), who is 23 years her junior and seems rather shellshocked by the way his life has turned out.
While visually it’s a markedly less stylish backdrop than we would expect of Haynes – think a chintzy, dysfunctional spin on Martha Stewart kitsch – the director leans into the melodrama of the story, with a deliciously overwrought score (a re-orchestration by Marcelo Zarvos of Michel Legrand’s music for Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between, it brings with it a frisson of illicit passions). The witty framing of the shots, all mirror images and symmetrical reflections, captures the prickly relationship between actor and subject, a kind of hostile symbiosis and tacit rivalry. A slippery screenplay by Samy Burch (from a story by Burch and Alex Mechanik) drip-feeds niggling details that gradually colour the characters of both women. And the performances, from Moore and in particular Portman, are sublime: both bracingly unsympathetic and wildly enjoyable.