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Director Todd Haynes presents ‘May December,’ a playfully troubled drama starring Natalie Portman, at Cannes


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In Todd Haynes’s tonally shape-shifting “May December,” the first announcement of the film’s playful intentions comes with a dramatic zoom in, some lush melodramatic piano notes, and the gleeful declaration that there are no more hot dogs in the fridge.

Directors Todd Haynes, left, and Natalie Portman pose for portrait photos for the film 'May December' at the 76th International Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 21, 2023.  (Photo by Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP)( Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP)
Directors Todd Haynes, left, and Natalie Portman pose for portrait photos for the film ‘May December’ at the 76th International Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 21, 2023. (Photo by Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP)( Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP)

That moment — which Haynes says signals “that something embarrassing is happening in the language of the movie” — is just a taste of things to come in “May December,” a deliciously unsettling drama brimming with comedy and camp, whose premiered. Weekend at the Cannes Film Festival.

Natalie Portman stars as an actor researching an upcoming film dramatizing a scandal 20 years ago. She comes to Savannah, Georgia, to spend time with Gracie Atherton-Yu (Julianne Moore), who years ago became tabloid fodder for her sexual relationship with a seventh grader. Now, she is happily married to Joe Yu (Charles Melton), with children of her own and hosting suburban barbecues.

The film, written by Sammy Burch, takes a light but deliberate touch in navigating through thorny themes of performance and identity. As Portman’s character grows more like Gracie, moral boundaries begin to fall away.

In an interview with Portman, Haynes said, “It was such an amazing script and so harsh today.” “It kept changing the way you felt about or trusted one character versus the other. That whole process as it progressed through the script was such a compelling experience. And I just thought: Wow, how can you translate that visually?”

“May/December,” which Netflix acquired Tuesday for $11 million with plans to release it later this year, marks the first time Haynes (who has worked regularly with Moore) has teamed up with Portman, 41. Film made. For her, “May December” was not only a chance to work with a director she had long admired, but also a chance to explore some of her own charms.

Portman, who is also the film’s producer, says, “It raises a lot of questions that are most obsessive about performance, about the purpose of art, about innocence.”

“When you explore all those layers – playing someone playing a character, filming a movie in a movie – there are so many layers of artifice, and what truths can we get out of the artifice? — which is kind of the alchemy we do,” says Portman. “We’re using lies to tell the truth, and that’s magic.”

“December May” has some unofficial roots in reality. Gracie is in some ways not too different from Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher in Washington state who went to prison after having an affair with a boy in her sixth grade class.

Questions of identity and artistry run through Haynes’ filmography, which includes the quintessential ’50s romance “Carol,” the Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama “Far From Heaven” and his most recent film, the documentary “The Velvet Underground.” Is. In Portman, they found an actor who shared a similar vision for the film.

“A lot of narrative filmmaking and narrative-making has an intrinsic desire to redeem itself through the process, to affirm its own goals. This is what I find special as a director,” says Haynes. Not interested. Character.”

He praised Portman’s eagerness to “engage with and lean into the character’s most unsettling aspects”.

Portman famously modeled some real-life characters, such as Jacqueline Kennedy (“Jackie”), which required copious amounts of research. But in “May December”, she plays a far more carefree actor than she is. Yet even in a performance that could easily slip into satire, Portman deftly inhabits it.

“Most actors who tell stories want to keep their moral point of view in the light. Taking and exploiting human emotion and human storytelling and telling a story can be diabolical,” says Portman. Also coming into it is empathy and a curiosity to explore one’s human behavior and one’s inner self. It is an act of sympathy and not an act of bloodshed.

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Long talks took place with Haynes and Moore as they prepared to make “May/December” over 30 days of shooting in the spring. But, unlike her character, Portman’s preparation for the part had mostly already taken place.

“Well,” Portman says with a smile, “I’ve spent my whole life researching how to be an actress.”

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