Netflix’s ‘May December’ takes the audience into the heart of a complicated romance that faces trouble with the arrival of a foreign element. Actress Elizabeth Berry is set to play the role of a woman in her 30s who seduced and had sex with a seventh grader. It’s a complex role, to say the least, and she wants to understand the character better, for which she visits the person on whom it is based.
For Gracie Atherton-Yoo, the arrival of the actress is a disturbance to the delicate balance she has found in her life. The film shrewdly captures Gracie’s marriage with Joe, while the events unfold from the point of view of Elizabeth. The title brings out the themes and heart of the story, hinting to the audience what they should look forward to. But let’s find out why is it called May December in the first place.
The Title Reflects the Subject of the Movie in the Simplest Terms
The phrase “May December” is used to refer to a romantic relationship between two people with considerable age gap. The two months represent the seasons in a year, with May representing spring and December being winter. The seasons, further, refer to the seasons in a person’s life. In that sense, the younger person in the relationship is May, still blooming in the spring of their life, impressionable and easily falling to someone’s charm. Meanwhile, December represents the older person in the relationship who has moved far from their own spring and is now in the cold winter, hardened by life and refusing to budge when it comes to what they want.
The relationship between Gracie and Joe in the movie is reflected by the title. It was thought of by Samy Burch, who wrote the screenplay for the film. According to director Todd Haynes, “I liked it because it’s simple and maybe reduces expectations of a lurid tabloid story. But also, it just uses the term May, which is very important. The film is set in May. May is the graduation month and has Memorial Day, so everything is framed within the month of May in a meaningful way.” He added that even though the phrase might not translate to other languages or be well known to a certain audience, it still contains the core of the story, which is why it was a perfect choice for the movie’s title.
While the age gap is the main controversy when it comes to the relationship between Gracie and Joe, the director also focused on how it might have different connotations for different genders. The way an older man-younger woman relationship is seen is quite different from how people perceive an older woman-younger man relationship. According to the director, it is not considered very surprising when men indulge in such romances. For women, however, it is an entirely unexpected and rather unacceptable thing because she also has an added question of family, which doesn’t necessarily fall on a man in the same situation.
Speaking about her character’s transgressions, Julianne Moore said: “When is age inappropriate? When people are in different places developmentally. This is not appropriate, and why we have boundaries around that? In this movie, you see Gracie’s transgressions as well as everybody else’s. This movie feels so dangerous because you don’t know where anyone’s boundaries are – it feels scary.”
Apart from the fact that their romance was not suitable for their ages, the story also questions the origin of the romance. Haynes explained, “There are problematic aspects as to how this relationship began, which works towards a conflict at the end. And yet this is complicated by the fact that this relationship endured.” Despite the national scandal that was stirred by the revelation of their affair, Gracie and Joe still got married and spent more than a decade married to each other. However, that was when Joe was in spring.
By the time the events of the film happen, he has crossed over into mid-life and doesn’t have the same innocence and impressionability anymore. He is now around the same age that Gracie was when their affair began, and as he starts to think about that, the reality of his situation starts to dawn on him, making him wonder about the truth of what really happened between them back then.
In another sense, “May” could be a reference to Elizabeth, with Gracie being the “December.” Elizabeth is around the same age as Joe and is going to play Gracie, around the same age she was when the affair happened. Because of this, Joe feels a connection with Elizabeth and tries to see his own relationship through her eyes, while Elizabeth feeds on his life with Gracie and tries to inhabit the latter for the role. With time, she turns more and more into Gracie, at one point sexually exploiting Joe for selfish reasons and, in some ways, becoming the May Gracie left behind all those years ago.