“May December” uses its soundtrack to manipulate you

“May December” uses its soundtrack to manipulate you

“May December” opens simultaneously and in perfect synchronization on a visual and sound level. The first piano key pressed, the first frame of the film. A monarch butterfly just emerging from its cocoon flaps its wings, the poignant notes of a romantic and insistent melody, the title in large letters: “May December”, a film by Todd Haynes. It is the beginning of a journey in which the director of “Velvet Goldmine”, “I'm not there” and “Carol” uses music to confuse us, displace us, if not throw us out of the film.

The butterflies and birds of prey of “May December”

“May December” runs on multiple tracks: it is a truly difficult film to pigeonhole, elusive. AND the story of a crime now reabsorbed by everyday life and of a film within a film that wants to tell it again. The film is inspired by the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau, a school teacher who went to prison for abusing a 12-year-old student named Vili Fualaau. The two continued to see each other during her imprisonment, they had two children together born behind bars, and they married when he became of age.

Samy Burch is inspired by these facts to tell us about a couple who went through a similar judicial process. Gracie, now on the threshold of middle age, lives in a suburban idyll with Joe. He is now 36, the age she was when she started dating him. Joe was thirteen at the time and went to school with Gracie's son, his age.

Elizabeth, played by Natalie Portman, is also 36 years old. The woman is a Hollywood actress who will play Gracie in a biopic dedicated to her legal case. “May December” recounts the handful of days that the diva spends at the couple's home, to have their story told and prepare for the role. In “May December” there are two alpha females – Gracie and Elisabeth – and several raptors.
There is Gracie who firmly holds together the pieces of her pre- and post-prison life, contact with her ex-husband and children with him, Joe's offspring, the neighborhood, the community.

Then there is Hollywood, embodied by Elizabeth, behind her affected ways and her kindness he feeds on people's pain and private life to fuel his own career and ego. The film is such a caustic and cutting portrait of the claim of certain American cinema to “tell true stories with tact and sensitivity” that it is not surprising that it only took home one Oscar nomination, for Samy Burch's screenplay.

Because the “May December” soundtrack is so unsettling

“May December” is a beautiful film, but never simple. He is always on the threshold of the scene, mocking the characters a little, the audience a little. He covers his cards, never makes it clear where he wants to go, and also closes his characters off a cocoon of tonal camp and surrounding them with photographic marmalade worthy of a 90s soap opera. He never renounces the tones of melodrama, of which Haynes is a great master, often delving into satire.
There is something that contributes to making the spectator lose balance the splendid soundtrack by Marcelo Zavros. The composer here carries out a fascinating work of transformation, bringing out something new, alive and disturbing from the cocoon of an old forgotten soundtrack.

The piano theme with which May December opens re-elaborates that of an old romantic film: “Messenger of Love (The Go-Between)” by Joseph Losey, passed the Cannes festival in 1971. The film's music was scored by the legendary French composer Michel Legrand, piano master, jazz enthusiast and prolific soundtrack author. He wrote more than 200 of them, winning 3 Oscars.

“Messagero d'amore” is a film forgotten today, but much loved by Haynes. The director asked Marcelo Zavros to starting from the poignant piano theme of that film to create the soundtrack of “May December”. The soundtracks are very similar, but have diametrically opposed effects. In Losey's film the music serves to pull the viewer into the emotional heart of the story, in Haynes' it constantly throws him out of the story.

The cult scene of “May December” features a zoom, an unsettling line and precisely the theme of the film.We are in Gracie's kitchen, waiting for the arrival of the actress who will play her, chatting with her friend. Joe is on the patio, grilling hamburgers and frankfurters. Gracie opens the fridge, the camera suddenly zooms in on her face in profile and Julianne Moore, anguished, exclaims: “I don't think we have enough hot dogs”, followed closely by insistent, romantic and totally out of place piano by Zavros and Legrand.

“May December” is unaccompanied, how much rather brutally interrupted by the music. On every sunset overlooking the sea, on every intense gaze, in every moment in which the spectator is ready to let go of the feeling, Zavros's emphatic plan enters the scene and breaks the magic.

The film, based on a true story, is the story of how Hollywood in turn constructed artifices and passed them off as truth. Elizabeth is a shapeshifter who slowly transforms into Gracie. Her manipulative art, her exasperated search for perfection, makes her no less dangerous than Gracie, and just as fascinating. Gracie's perfect alive is hanging by a thread, a a tenuous semblance of perfection and normality that can be violently thrown into crisis by a sudden shortage of hot dogs.

The film remains deliberately unbalanced throughout, in a mammoth filmic and acting effort. The unsettling music, the contemptuous humour, the ugliness that becomes beautiful and then becomes kitsch again it reminds us at every moment of the deception that is proposed to us. The soundtrack of “May December” is beautiful (listen to it outside the film, try it) but its use in the film is among the most shocking, innovative and violent of recent years.the. It's a hammer that when the image becomes clear shatters it into a thousand pieces.

The only truth for which the film has respect and compassion is that of Joe, the boy who becomes Gracie's husband. His pain is embodied by the stellar performance of Charles Melton, who slowly manages to make us see the trauma of the boy hidden by the dullness of the parent who already sees his children going to college. The harrowing rooftop scene, not surprisingly, is silent. There is no lie to shatter: there is only the truth of Joe's pain.

Remember that beautiful scene from David Lynch's “Mulholland Drive” set at Club Silencio? Rebekah Del Rio sings with all the transport of her soul, moving the protagonists to tears and then suddenly collapses to the ground, revealing the cruelty of artifice, of playback, of the emotion that music and cinema can create with 'deceit. “May December” has the same power, the same cruelty.

“May December” is in Italian cinemas from March 21, 2023, distributed by Lucky Red. Netflix has secured distribution rights to its platform.