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‘May December’ Is Nasty and Unsettling in a Way ‘Saltburn’ Only Wishes It Was

Todd Haynes's latest domestic melodrama perpetually keeps you off balance; Emerald Fennell's black comedy twists itself into gratuitous knots.

1:15 PM CST on November 22, 2023

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in ‘May December’; Barry Keoghan in ‘Saltburn’

Emerald Fennell writes and directs like someone who takes time to admire the shape and consistency of her turds before she flushes. Fennell was responsible for the daringly provocative/smugly exploitative (pick one) Promising Young Woman, and with her follow up, Saltburn, she’s no less impressed with her whoop-de-do plot convolutions. But without the moral underpinning/news hook (pick one) of #MeToo anchoring its story, her new black comedy about the idle rich and the all-too-industrious poor just roams around being nasty, daring us all not to be shocked/yawn (pick one). I recommend it highly to people who describe movies as “delicious.” They deserve nothing better.

Barry Keoghan’s Oliver Quick (how Dickensian, if you insist) is a shunned scholarship boy at Oxford with a Mersey brogue and unfashionable clothes. One day he spies golden boy Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) on the side of the road with a flat bike tire and offers to lend him his bike. Even here you can tell Oliver is on some talented Mr. Ripley shit because we’ve seen enough Keoghan movies never to trust him. So when Felix, in a mix of gratitude and pity, invites Oliver into his social circle and then to summer at his family’s estate, Saltburn, we’re already primed for the little weasel to start manipulating the dull rich people around him. 

And what docile prey they are. As the patriarch, Sir James, Richard E. Grant is given little to do but look dotty—a true waste. The ageless Rosamund Pike’s vain Lady Elspeth does at least get some fun lines. (“I was a lesbian for a while, you know, but it was all too wet for me in the end. Men are just so lovely and dry,” she observes apropos of nothing at one point.) Meanwhile, Felix’s undersexed sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) practically pants around outside Oliver’s window in the moonlight and their pampered poor relative Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), enough of a skunk himself to know what they smell like, schemes to get rid of his rival to the Catton’s largesse. (Madekwe does manage to appear taller than Elordi—a feat!) Oh, and Carey Mulligan hangs about a bit as a sponger the family can’t wait to boot out.

“I did love him,” Oliver says of Felix at the start of the film, in some sort of retrospective confession. But since Fennell can’t be bothered with mundane dramatic conventions like rounded characterization or psychological motivation, we don’t know what to make of Oliver’s apparent infatuation with Felix. And by “we” I also mean Fennell. She’d rather fixate naughtily on bodily fluids—she films cum lapped from a tub drain and period blood shared in a kiss as though no human has ever before ingested either liquid. It’s like she just stood on set and kept yelling “lurider!” at everyone. 

At one of the movie’s more, I guess you’d call it “transgressive” bits, folks around me were unsuccessfully stifling giggles, and I can’t say for sure they were laughing with. Throughout Saltburn we’re expected to respond “I can’t believe this is happening!” but of course we can believe this is happening. It’s a movie. Crazy things happen in movies. We’re just not sure why this has to be happening. 

And really, the aristocracy makes such an inconsequential target for a 20th century striver. I found The Menu and Triangle of Sadness fairly toothless, myself, but hell, Ruben Östlund is Buñuel by comparison to Fennell, who just wants to find some people it’ll be ok to be mean to with relative impunity for a couple hours. If Saltburn doesn’t represent the nadir of the class-war revenge-fantasy film that’s been Hollywood’s Big Idea recently… well, friends, we’re in for some rough watches at the ol’ cineplex in 2024, that’s all I can say. 

With its labyrinthine hedge maze, musty old books, and antique customs, Saltburn itself looks the part, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren ends the film a superficially stylish glint. But I’d prefer the sleek look of an honest B-thriller that admits it only exists to titillate us to whatever we’re being shown here. At a certain point the plot twists itself into such knots it’s hard to care where this all is going, and Fennell’s sole concern is seeing to it that Oliver’s machinations are brought off with frictionless consistency. Then, in case you’re a total idiot, she provides one of those stupid montages at the end where we see everything we already could have assumed happened. 

Worst of all is watching what’s become of Keoughan, who seems out to remind us that you can’t spell his last name without “ENOUGH!” Hard to believe it’s only been six years since The Killing of a Sacred Deer—it used to take at least a decade for an actor’s m.o. to curdle to shtick. Here he takes his alpha-nerd persona as far as it’ll go here (well, at least until he plays the Joker in the next Batman flick, ugh), and he has nothing more to show us. I mean that he literally: He does an extended nude scene, peen and all. What a rotten little movie. 


Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) floats busily in and out of her lovely Savannah, Georgia, home, a successful backyard barbeque in full swing, checking in with her hunky young husband (Charles Melton) to see that he hasn’t downed one beer too many, slowing her teen children and their friends as they rush through the house. Then she peers into the fridge. The music spikes theatrically.

"I don't think we have enough hot dogs," she says with the mildest perturbation.  

After Fennell’s tedious game of “are ya shocked yet?” it's a pleasure to be genuinely unsettled by Todd Haynes’s May December, a small, often darkly funny masterpiece of misdirection from a guy who doesn’t usually do small, working from a script by Samy Burch that Haynes seems to have turned inside out. A riff off the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal (Moore even adopts the lisp) that nods toward Bergman’s Persona and punctuates scenes with an adaptation of Michel Legrand’s dramatic theme from The Go-Between, May December is the sort of domestic metatextual melodrama where Haynes is very much at home. We’re perpetually off-balance throughout this story of an actress prying into the past and the psyche of a one-time scandalous tabloid sensation. We're constantly looking the wrong way, asking the wrong questions, laughing at the wrong things, disturbed by the wrong situations. 

Moore’s Gracie and her husband Joe first slept together in the ‘90s when he was a seventh grade kid and she was already married with children, and she had his baby in prison after a statutory rape conviction. Now, two decades later, despite an occasional package of shit mailed to them by recalcitrant ill-wishers, the couple has faded into cozy domesticity. Gracie bakes pies for a living. Joe is an X-ray tech who raises monarch butterflies as a hobby. Their three children—one in college, two headed there in the fall—don’t seem excessively scarred by their parents’ sordid past. As 21st century America goes, that’s fairly idyllic.

All that may or may not change upon the arrival of Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a TV actress famous enough to elicit giggles of recognition from teens, who arrives at Gracie and Joe’s home to scrutinize the notorious woman she’ll be playing in an upcoming indie movie. Elizabeth is at least 25% designer sunglasses, her clearly expensive haircut accounts for at least half of the rest of her personality, and we get the sense this role is Elizabeth’s one real shot at being taken seriously. In what amounts into an icy satire of method acting, we watch her do whatever it takes to understand Gracie. 

Yet Gracie is opaque in that way that only disarmingly frank people can be. She apparently believes that her love for Joe erases all moral (and legal) quandaries, to the frustration of Elizabeth, who’s in search of “gray areas” to explore. Gracie flips Elizabeth’s questions back at her: When Elizabeth recalls how her parents said she was too smart to become an actor, Gracie deadpans “Are you?”; Elizabeth isn’t quite sure how to respond. Some of the pair’s most emotionally fraught moments occur in front of mirrors, highlighting Elizabeth’s efforts to duplicate Gracie, and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt does some haunting work with Moore and Portman’s faces. The intimacy when Gracie applies her brand of lipstick to Elizabeth is two-edged; slightly parodic of the long-standing cinematic trope of women’s identities blurring, but no less chilling for all that.

Elizabeth also hunts down Gracie’s acquaintances: Her first husband, her lawyer, the eldest son from her first marriage (an unnervingly excitable Cory Michael Smith). And, of course, there’s Joe. To understand Gracie, Elizabeth must lust for the boy he once was. When Elizabeth goes to high school to talk to students about acting, she smiles as the boys in the hall ogle her and show off to get her attention, and she answers a kid’s snarky question about sex scenes with horny breathlessness. There’s a mix of rapture and self-amusement as she lays back and spreads her legs, alone, in the supply closet where Gracie and Joe first fucked, imagining what it must have been like. She feels like she’s getting away with something without doing anything wrong, yet when she blithely ends an encounter with Joe with a dismissive “That’s just what grownups do,” it somehow feels as abusive as anything Gracie has done to him.

There’s a perpetual sense of danger and unease in May December that doesn’t have to be realized to disquiet us. It’s in small moments like the way the asthmatic Elizabeth wheezes when Georgie casually smokes in her face, or how Gracie backhandedly body shames her daughter in front of Elizabeth without apology. It’s in the emotionally complex scene where Joe’s son Charlie shares a joint with his dad on their roof (Joe’s first ever), and in how Charlie storms away from the dinner table at one point, leaving us to wonder whether he’s just being a moody teen or if something worse is to come..  

Thanks to Haynes’s trickery, it’s hard to tell what matters here. Will Elizabeth undermine this happy life that Gracie and Joe have built together, or perhaps reveal the hidden cracks in their facade? Will Elizabeth somehow be traumatized by her infiltration into Gracie’s life? Will Elizabeth’s method flirtation with Joe cross that line? You can almost hear an old-time soap opera announcer intone these questions before imploring you to tune in tomorrow. And you’re so caught up in learning the answers that you sometimes forget to ask, “Why is everyone being so nice to this woman who fucked a 13-year-old?”

In a film that’s always on the edge of unsettling revelations, Melton’s Joe is our reminder that the most disturbing thing happened 24 years earlier. There’s something perpetually childlike about Joe, especially his need to nurture butterflies—it’s a metaphor that Haynes, in his typical way, both embraces and ironizes, as he does in the mirror scenes. Joe also texts flirtily with a fellow lepidopterist, imagining what it must be like to spread his wings. It's like he's undergoing a midlife crisis while still experiencing adolescence.

Gracie, who’s doted on protectively by her neighbors, is childlike as well. When Elizabeth calls her naive, Gracie agrees: “I am naive. I’ve always been naive.” (Just how self-aware can one be about her own naivete, we wonder.) This is the third time Moore has played a housewife for Haynes, but if Carol Wife in Safe and Cathy Whitaker in Far From Heaven are pinned down by domestic life, Gracie has embraced it as a refuge. If it’s just a role she’s adopted, she plays it so well no one can tell. Moore's innate feel for Haynes’s tonal curlicues is so much fun to watch play out; when she lapses into bouts of crying about minor issues, we don’t know if it’s a sign of a deeper fear or if she’s just high-strung. It’s less disturbing when we learn that Gracie is not exactly as she appears than it is when we learn in some ways she is.

Which brings us to the all-important, perhaps ultimately unanswerable question: Can Natalie Portman actually act? I’ve come down on both sides of that question over the years, eventually reaching the hedged conclusion that she has just enough actorliness in her screen presence to carry a role even when she’s not giving us much. But her nuanced turn in here makes me wonder if directors just haven’t always known what to make of her. We’ve known since Black Swan at least that camp is her medium, and she’s better here because Haynes’s camp is smarter than Darren Aronofsky’s (he said understatementedly).  

Most of all, it’s a treat to see Haynes not swing for the fences for a change. He  accomplishes more with this modest exercise than he has in some of his grander visions. (His two attempts at reconfiguring rock mythos—the Dylanologically constipated I’m Not There and the claustrophobic take on glam rock Velvet Goldmine—suffocated the shared aspect of pop within his hyper-personalized vision, says this rock critic.) Nearly three decades since he showed himself capable of greatness with a big picture with Safe, he’s crafted a smaller one that's nearly just as effective.

GRADES

Saltburn: C

May December: A-

May December is now playing at the Lagoon Cinema and is coming to Netflix on December 1. Saltburn is now playing in many local theaters. Too many, if you ask me.

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