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Natalie Portman is a revelation in May December



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Natalie Portman won the Oscar for “Black Swan” in 2010, but her best work was yet to come. In “May December: Secrets of a Scandal,” she is an authentic revelation, a weaponized queen of falsehood.

Todd Haynes has always been concerned with reconstructing real lives on the big screen. Before releasing his first feature film, the director had already been the subject of great controversy when, in 1987, he released “Superstar”. The short film is dedicated to exploring the tragedy of Karen Carpenter, a famous singer who succumbed to complications caused by anorexia. But in this film, far from resurrecting the tabloid past through conventional means, Haynes used Barbies as his actors. For the main figure, he sculpted the plastic, giving the portrait an aspect of terror. It is a masterpiece that, in itself, deconstructs the vices of biopics.

This obsession would continue to manifest itself throughout his career. In 1998, Haynes autopsied glam rock through a mythical version of David Bowie, with Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and others on the margins of history. “Velvet Goldmine” is not a biography, but it is also one, contorted and prismated through a disfiguring mirror. In 2008, when he paid tribute to Bob Dylan, Haynes broke the figure into several personas, constructing a film in the form of a mosaic, full of fragments and abstraction. “May December,” premiered in Cannes before ensuring distribution of Netflix, deviates from the musical icon model. That said, it is even more explicit in the way it questions cinematic ingenuity.

natalie portman may december
© NOS Audiovisuais

The work is inspired by the real case of Mary Kay Letourneau who, in 1997, was found guilty and convicted of the sexual relationship she had with a minor. She was 34 years old, he was 12 years old at the start of the abuse. Later, they would get married and have children until, decades later, the husband filed for divorce and began to speak publicly about the process by which he realized what had happened to him. Neither Letourneau nor Vili Fualaau, her victim, are characters in “May December.” However, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton play fictionalizations of them, with other names and details slightly changed.

Camera and plot discover the pair with the arrival of an intruder, a half-vampiric observer in a putative search for the truth. She is Elizabeth Berry, a famous television actress who will play Moore’s character in an independent film. In the role of the interpreter, Natalie Portman appears to us in a state of grace and maximum perversity, comfortable in the role of a bad actress. For years, this Oscar winner has demonstrated that she is always at her best when she can approach projects through anti-naturalistic approaches, repudiating behavioral realism in favor of something more stylized. In certain cases, the performance is a commentary on characters in the middle of their own performance.

This is already evident in “Black Swan” and “Jackie” too, resulting in a kind of theatrical cubism. We are always aware of the actress’ effort, the friction between her and the projected character. However, this is not a mistake, but an added value. From this arise powerful creations at the level of intellect that still have strong effects in their visceral impact. To some extent, Portman must be aware of this. After all, she was the one who brought the “May December” project to Todd Haynes, acting as lead actress and producer. Between camp lines, black comedy and salacious melodrama, Portman presents herself as false as ever and therein lies her genius.

A mirror in the shape of a person, Elizabeth approaches her work as an actress as a game of superficial mimesis. She imitates poses and seems to get lost in an almost childish copy of mannerisms and speech idiosyncrasies. There is no depth to her research, just a reflection of reflections. Haynes and Portman form a sharp critique of the sensationalization of such real stories, the tragedy made into a tabloid soap opera, the pain reconstructed as a convenience. But it’s not like Moore’s abuser was a victim. She and Berry’s character are two sides of the same manipulation coin – so different and so similar at the same time.

may december natalie portman
© NOS Audiovisuais

Haynes uses the dynamic between the two actresses and Charles Melton to create tonal juxtapositions that make “May December” as entertaining as it is devastating. Portman and Moore seem to be working towards the darkest humor in the world, while their co-protagonist never explores such tones. But Moore surrenders to psychological three-dimensionality at the same time as he is an unresolved cipher. Portman is something much stranger, a bottomless well of insincerity always with a foot in the grotesque. She is the Elisabet Vogler that Liv Ullmann brought to life in Bergman’s “Persona”, a black hole with eyes on the camera. She sucks and cannibalizes, breaks our hearts with cruel speech and a joke that isn’t funny.

For those who define good acting work by its proximity to perceptible realities outside of cinema, this could lead to failure. But art should not be managed by such limits. None of this is a mistake on the part of the actress. Quite the contrary, Portman is in absolute control of this Elizabeth, her obscenity and bizarreness. A scene in high school shows this, while more sexual moments are an exercise in fostering discomfort among viewers. Finally, at the moment that all award ceremonies will present her, Portman delivers a crazy monologue with eyes beyond the fourth wall.

may december natalie portman
© NOS Audiovisuais

Elizabeth took possession of a letter from her abuser to the boy she would later marry. In front of the mirror, she acts out the old words and Portman lets herself be carried away by the overlapping layers of performance. The artifice reaches orgasmic heights, with the woman’s face a kind of short-circuited mechanism. At first, her lips don’t seem to know where to stand, her eyebrows are restless, and her muscles are constantly readjusting. Contrasting this game with the glimpse we get of the film within the film at the end of “May December,” Elizabeth’s venom is evident. And the genius of Natalie Portman it is even more evident. If there were justice in the world, the appointment to the Oscar would be guaranteed.

In Portugal, “May December: Secrets of a Scandal” is in cinemas. In other countries, it is already on Netflix, but here we will have to wait a little longer to see it on streaming.

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