Grace Under Pressure: Exploring Power Dynamics and Masks of Identity in Todd Haynes’ “May-December”

2023 could be deemed the inaugural year of “the world as an extensive grassroots collective.” Amidst the descent of the era, individuals have come to apprehend the inherently absurd essence of existence, forsaking naive expectations of logical conformity. Consequently, in 2024, I embraced with equanimity the notion that “the world has metamorphosed into the unforeseen.”

The cinematic opus “May 12,” recently bestowed with an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, aptly mirrors the zeitgeist of this epoch rife with uncertainty. Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman grace the screen, embodying characters replete with ambition, artifice, and moral frailty.

Director Todd Haynes boldly eschews the conventional strictures of commercial cinema, eschewing the dispensation of spiritual solace in favor of incessantly challenging the audience’s comfort zones. Can a film, veering away from mere mimicry of life to explore the nuanced interplay between veracity and deceit, garner acceptance? Undervalued is its capacity to elucidate the true essence of existence and encapsulate the cultural zeitgeist.

01. Shotgun: Who holds dominion?

“May-December” unfurls against the tapestry of a complex moral allegory: Grace, ensconced in matrimony with offspring, is ensnared in infidelity with a 13-year-old, Joe, leading to her incarceration. Astonishingly, she not only bears Joe’s progeny behind bars but forges a new familial bond with him upon release, enduring over two decades together.

Confronted with this extraordinary duo, perennially ensconced in ardor, director Todd Haynes abstains from moral adjudication, opting instead to dissect their dynamic through the lens of socio-cultural gender paradigms, astutely plumbing the undercurrents of power animating their relationship.

At a superficial level, the dynamics between Grace and Joe echo those of a damsel and her knight. Grace, bedecked in butterfly-sleeved attire, espouses a demure, childlike speech, exuding delicacy and sensitivity. Joe, paradoxically, exudes a maturity and steadfastness belied by his tender years, habitually assuming the mantle of caregiver.

Yet, amidst the quotidian milieu, fissures in Grace’s facade of control subtly emerge. For instance, ostensibly expressing concern over her daughter’s attire, she clandestinely critiques the garment as accentuating her daughter’s bodily imperfections while commending her defiance of societal beauty norms. Thus, employing a circuitous stratagem, she compels her daughter to effect a substitution.

Evidently, Grace is no mere ingénue; rather, she commands a latent narrative authority within the contours of conjugal dynamics. In the saga of illicit “May-December” romance, the struggle for narrative primacy assumes paramount importance. Who wields the quill? In what manner? To what end? Who merits moral indemnity therein? These queries, Grace apprehends from the outset.

Following her initial liaison with Joe, she dispatches impassioned missives beseeching secrecy. Subsequently, when their liaison comes to light, she feigns innocence, repudiating culpability whilst romanticizing their bond as a transcendental “Romeo and Juliet” saga.

Grace emerges as the preeminent huntress, adeptly manipulating gender archetypes to her advantage. She even embraces vulnerability, beseeching clemency akin to prey, thereby seizing the ultimate initiative.

Savvy to society’s less lenient stance towards female transgressions mirroring male foibles, particularly within the tabloid milieu, Grace lucratively peddles their nuptial portraits to gossip rags, securing a palatial abode with a piscine expanse. Though subject to sporadic vitriolic missives, these serve to sustain interest in their tale, rendering it commercially viable.

For the amicable and gregarious, Grace adeptly tailors her narrative, downplaying the chasm in years between her and Joe. She extolls Joe as the patriarchal figurehead, steeped in romantic lore and seasoned in matters of the heart. Yet, ensconced within her familial cocoon, she remains a novice, her sole romantic dalliance confined to her former spouse.

She assiduously internalizes this narrative, assuming the guise of an emotional damsel, coaxing forth Joe’s solicitude and care. Upon Joe’s slightest inkling of dissent, she invokes his familial obligations, subtly dictating the contours of their illicit liaison, asserting, “You initiated our tryst. You held sway in our dalliance.”

02. Mirror: Persona Reimagined

The contours of Grace’s existence have become a mask, unbeknownst to her. Per psychoanalytic precepts, she not only guards fervently against scrutiny, subjugating her yearnings for Joe, but also fabricates an ersatz persona in pursuit of societal approbation, thereby extinguishing her authentic self. Prolonged masquerade begets veritable identity conflation.

Grace emerges as life’s consummate thespian, eclipsing even seasoned professionals. Particularly, Elizabeth, cast in Grace’s image, assumes a semblance of the mask but falls short of genuine emulation.

In “May-December,” Elizabeth’s rendezvous with Grace presages cinematic portrayal. Entrusted with essaying Grace’s role, Elizabeth meticulously scrutinizes her countenance, unwittingly mirroring her expressions in the looking glass.

Enthusiasts of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” will discern a parallel in the shared visages of its protagonists, their identities conflating until indistinguishable. Analogously, Grace and Elizabeth engage in a symbiotic mirroring, though Grace’s ascendancy remains unassailable.

This asymmetry crystallizes during Grace’s cosmetic ministrations upon Elizabeth. Initially circumspect, Grace’s demeanor shifts during the process, discovering a perverse gratification in Elizabeth’s malleability. She perceives in Elizabeth a blank canvas upon which to project her desired image to the world.

In essence, the facade not only endures but is fortified. Amidst the cosmetic ritual, Grace may discern a latent allure in Elizabeth’s burgeoning assimilation, confirming her as a kindred spirit. Elizabeth, akin to Grace, evinces scant interest in absolute veracity, eschewing introspection.

Elizabeth effortlessly samples the saccharine without endeavor. Upon securing Joe’s confidence and unearthing Grace’s missive, her instinctual impulse is not towards Joe’s legal jeopardy but toward replicating Grace’s seductive overtures, thus vicariously reliving her ardor.

Yet, even in this apotheosis, Grace maintains dominion. The mise-en-scène abounds with telltale signs: Grace’s spectral vigil during Elizabeth’s rendezvous with Joe, her orchestration of the liaison. In this narrative power play, Elizabeth proves the solitary player, Grace the arbiter, effortlessly quashing Elizabeth’s presumptions.

03. Bait: Divine Mirth

An inadvertent tableau in “May-December” serves as a microcosm of the film’s overarching motif. Perusing the pet store storeroom wherein Grace and Joe once rendezvoused, Elizabeth receives a cautionary admonition from the proprietor: “Touch not the bait.” Herein lies the directorial admonition: mistrust all narratives, for they are capricious, if not duplicitous.

This episode exposes Elizabeth’s fallibility as a narrator. Transiting the elongated corridor, she is relegated to the periphery of the frame, fostering a voyeuristic milieu. She mirrors the audience, fixated on the salacious crux of the “May-December” saga.

Employing tropes reminiscent of thriller cinema, the director imbues quotidian vignettes with an aura of suspense. Close-ups, accompanied by a portentous score, evoke a pervasive disquiet, suggestive of a divine spectator jesting behind the lens.

Early on, Grace and Elizabeth spar over narrative prerogative, their reflections converging in a cross formation, evoking divine presence. God, though taciturn, reveals truths in the sanctity of silence, transcending verbal expression.

Save for fleeting instances, the film exudes a veneer of artifice, punctuated by poignant interludes of authenticity. One such moment occurs during Grace’s cosmetic ministrations, baring her vulnerability and unspoken scars.

Director Haynes orchestrates a climactic volte-face, challenging facile attributions of childhood trauma to familial provenance. This serves as both admonition and self-reflection, underscoring the seductive yet unreliable nature of truth. Life’s verities elude rational explication, with denouement deferred indefinitely.

In an epoch rife with uncertainty, established paradigms crumble, supplanted by transient relations. Haynes, in closing his narrative gambit, eschews catharsis for disquiet, admonishing viewers: “My films, though aesthetically pleasing, are not conduits of comfort, but provocateurs of discomposure.”

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