Todd Haynes’ Cinema of Sight

This essay about May December is part of a series of deep-dive works of criticism about films nominated for the 2024 Oscars released the week before the ceremony. 

What happens in the act of looking at another person? What happens when we are being looked at? Throughout his body of work, filmmaker Todd Haynes has always been preoccupied with the effects and complications of a gaze.

His characters run the gamut from prisoners, housewives, and pop stars, but they are each of them outsiders. For one reason or another, they are out of sync with their environment as well as the role ascribed to them. Eventually their gaze falls upon something — or someone — beyond the bounds of the world they know. They fixate on it for reasons beyond their understanding and the only way to understand it better seems to be getting a closer look. At the same time, our protagonist learns their gaze has a consequence: They are now being watched by those around them, perceived as the other they are and therein lies the danger. There is, of course, one more link in this chain of vision: us, the audience. We are observing an observation of an observer.

Haynes has taken this approach to filmmaking since the beginning. His 1993 short Dottie Gets Spanked is about a young boy named Stevie Gale who has but one interest: The Dottie Show starring his heroine Dottie Frank (a clear satire of Lucile Ball). One night at the regular Dottie hour, Stevie’s attention is pulled from the screen as he overhears a friend of his mother talking about spanking her unruly child of the same age, something Stevie has never experienced. As curiosity and desire work on a very innocent level for children, this melange of visuals and ideas — corporal punishment, Dottie, expected gender roles — are expressed primally, becoming the sole content of his dreams and drawings.

This is Haynes’ primary mode. To explore the different ways people look and how we metabolize images, seeking meaning and ascribing values and symbols on them. Desire. Prejudice. Self-discovery. At the same time Haynes’ filmmaking eschews escapism, addressing domestic realities and frankly showing us what we are told not to show, refusing to let us look away.


Set in Savannah, Georgia in 2015, Haynes’ latest picture, May December, follows actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) as she shadows couple Gracie and Joe Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore and Charles Melton) to prepare for a film she is producing based on them. Twenty-three years ago they were at the center of a nationwide scandal when Gracie, then 36 years old, entered into a relationship with Joe and became pregnant by him while he was in seventh grade. They’ve stayed together all those years and settled into a domestic life, raising their children in (very relative) normalcy. But tensions arise from Elizabeth’s presence, as well as the impending high school graduation of their youngest children and their approaching empty nest.

While the dynamic and history of the Atherton-Yoos is a central part of the plot, the film’s primary focal point is the interplay between Gracie and Elizabeth. As the actor’s fixation increases, as she embeds herself into the family’s lives and community, it appears she’s willing to blur any boundary to achieve the indefinable concept of truth. On the cursory glance, their relationship seems mutually beneficial: Gracie wants to be depicted as she is (in her own eyes) and Elizabeth wants to deliver a great performance. But what bubbles under the surface is not an exchange between these two women but a power struggle, a tug of war of observation and opacity.

If we consider Elizabeth our point of identification, then our central question as an audience appears to become the same as hers: Why is Gracie the way that she is? What drove this seemingly normal woman, a wife and a mother, to enter into a romantic and sexual relationship with a middle schooler? How could she live with herself knowing what she’d done? From everything Elizabeth can see, Gracie is absolutely unburdened by her past and sees nothing wrong with the choices that led her to be a national disgrace. She claims she fell in love and followed her heart. When questioned on her upbringing, she speaks of it as being “exceptional” and sees her life and marriage as ideal.

And so Elizabeth, not finding the answers she’s seeking in Gracie’s words, looks elsewhere. She looks over tabloids from the time. She speaks to various people in Gracie’s life. Gracie’s first husband Tom, who married her while he was in college and she was in highschool felt like things had always been great in their relationship. Morris, who had been her neighbor before he was her lawyer, barely remembers having met her before she was arrested.

Once again, the answer doesn’t get any clearer for Elizabeth.


In the tradition of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), May December is a film about duality with one woman trying to subsume the personality and experiences of another. And so Elizabeth tries to relive Gracie’s affair as best she can. She flirts with Joe, who despite being the same age as Elizabeth and having kids going to college, remains in an unconscious arrested development.

Joe is defined by a busy inarticulation, a devotion to his children, and a mind beginning to wander away from Gracie. He is quietly entertaining the idea of new connections as the one he’s known since puberty begins to lose definition. He is the single genuine figure amongst this triangle which makes his role in the manipulation of these two women very tragic and strangely comic.

The synergy between Samy Burch’s screenplay, Haynes’ direction, and Charles Melton’s performance allows this sensitive balance to shine through.

Take for instance, a scene early in the film when Elizabeth sits down to dinner with the Atherton-Yoos for the first time. The table is set for five. Cathy and Joe at each end, two chairs on one side for the twins, Mary and Charlie, and a single chair on the opposite side edged closer to Gracie. Mary’s chair is empty, her having gone to a friend’s house. Charlie, sitting next to his father, quickly asks to be excused.

We switch between four shots (two wide, two close) Gracie and Joe (but mostly Gracie) recounting for Elizabeth the story of how they first met. In wide, we see a high-angle shot from inside the kitchen while the reverse is at eye level, staring into the back of the kids’ empty chairs. Distance and obstruction. For close-ups, Joe occupies the right edge of his frame alone, primarily reacting. When Grace mentions his othered status as coming from the only Korean family in town, he interjects “half.” When she brings up his proximity in age to her son Georgie, he begins to quicken the pace with which he eats. The other close shot breaks the pattern, featuring both women in one frame. Joe is isolated. But they are already beginning to meld. They both look at him. He sits opposite Gracie but his eyeline is with Elizabeth.

The wides have domestic obstructions: the kitchen island, the empty chairs (where the children chose not to be). Elizabeth is creating asymmetry. The closes are emotionally claustrophobic while the wides distance us. The visual style captures the discordance of how nonchalantly they talk about “how they met” while glossing over the nationwide scandal or Gracie being found guilty of child rape or the birth of their first daughter happening in prison.

Joe barely has anything to say about how they met. When he does, he only talks in wides (where he agrees with Gracie) or offscreen. Joe’s close up is used solely for silent reaction — he has never had control over this narrative — with the single hilarious exception being his interjection of, “half.”

When he does speak throughout the film, his turn of phrase is juvenile, referring to his interest in fostering monarch butterflies as “dorky” and attractions outside of his marriage as “crushes.” With language, with posture, with perspective, he doesn’t feel like he’s in his mid-30s. He feels locked, even as he stays moving.

While Elizabeth leads Joe on, she works to endear herself to Gracie, believing she can find more in how she looks and behaves than by what she says. As Elizabeth watches, the doubling is emphasized with reflection playing heavily into the visual language.

An oft-used device throughout the film is a direct-to-camera with the lens representing a mirror the characters are looking into. Throughout the majority of the film, this is reserved for scenes featuring Elizabeth or ones where she is with Gracie. Though they are staring at us, we know they are studying each other. The film’s most complicated shot is an extrapolation of this, taking place in a boutique full of mirrors, Gracie and Elizabeth chatting as Mary tries on dresses for graduation.

Here Haynes’ gives us full view of all three of them through different angled reflections, so although the shot never moves and Mary comes into the center of the frame, we still can see Gracie’s face as she makes a veiled denigration about her daughter’s bravery showing her body. As Elizabeth is a reflection of Gracie, we can see Elizabeth studying her, quietly aghast, before falling back into faux pleasantries.


If you aren’t paying attention or perhaps get caught up in the same scandalous story, you may not realize until the end that Elizabeth Berry is a failure.

Dispersions of her talents are not outright stated (at least at first) but it is telegraphed through dialogue and the film’s visual language. Though a recognisable public figure, everyone categorically describes her as “being from TV,” her most well-known project a veterinary drama on network television called Norah’s Ark, which she is clearly (and rightfully) embarrassed by. While it has brought her fame and financial success, she is desperate for a chance to prove her value as an artist. In her eyes, a true crime film based off of the Atherton-Yoo story is her best means to court acclaim. She doesn’t care about making the movie — she’s making the movie so people will care about her.

Elizabeth’s audacity is not born of conviction but of desperation and it shows in all her interactions. During a call with her fiancé, she brushes him off with a lie about the network calling when the conversation shifts from Gracie’s lack of regrets to some of her own. In another call, this time with her film’s director, she flirts with him, a married man, to get what she wants. She’s manipulative but she isn’t as sly as she thinks she is. She’s only really able to fool Joe, who tends to trust others are moving with his same earnestness.

In a later scene, Elizabeth asks Gracie to show her makeup routine, but instead Gracie demonstrates on Elizabeth. Here the tables turn as Gracie begins interviewing Elizabeth. Elizabeth is desperate to impress people, admitting her parents were disappointed when she shared her dreams of acting. They said she was smarter than that.

“Are you smarter than that?” Gracie pointedly asks, to which Elizabeth can only muster an “I don’t know.” She looks at herself in Gracie’s trademark pink lipstick and thinks she is approaching “something true.” But it’s a cursory and superficial truth.

For a Julliard-educated performer, Elizabeth doesn’t seem to have any real technique to speak of. We don’t see her bring anything of herself to the work. She acts to move away from herself, not to bring herself to a new place. She can imitate a lisp but she can’t evoke a feeling. She fails to make any choices beyond imitation.

Through Elizabeth’s process, the film reveals one of its core themes: The gory details aren’t what matters. Imitation isn’t truth. Playing a real person is not the same as capturing human authenticity.


In many ways, Elizabeth’s approach to acting is an inverse to Haynes’ approach to filmmaking.

While Elizabeth attempts to reflect the light of an objective truth, Haynes understands that, at best, his work can refract it. His films abstract true stories and human experiences through a myriad of artistic influences. And so with its real-life inspiration, Bergman influence, repurposed score, and portrayal of artistic process, May December becomes a thesis statement of sorts for Haynes’ entire filmography.

Like the characters in his films, we may fail to find an objective truth in what we see. But we can look, we can listen, we can observe. And, for Haynes, to look is consistently framed as a homoerotic act.

Whether it’s overt, like in Carol, where Therese’s camera leads her to consummation, or simply felt like the energy between Elizabeth and Gracie, Haynes understands the queerness of gaze without answers.

Sometimes, we can only see each other with real clarity from a distance. That doesn’t mean that we should eschew closeness. We need to move in and out and know when to do it. We need to look from here and also from there. This is what film knows. This is what film proves.


On the night before the twin’s graduation, Elizabeth receives what seem like three vital pieces of information for crafting her performance. The first is a remark from Gracie’s troubled son Georgie claiming that his mom’s issues all stem from childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her brothers that he supposedly discovered in her diary. For Elizabeth, this explains everything and she takes it as fact.

The second and third piece come when Joe gives Elizabeth the only letter of Gracie’s he could save from the time of their affair. As she reaches to open it, he tells her to read it later. Elizabeth initiates sex with him and he shares a few short moments of passion with her before he cums. When he gets up to clean off, Elizabeth immediately opens the letter to see what it contains.

This encapsulates the chasm of difference in the two’s intentions and how they see each other. To Joe, this letter is something sacred that explains how he and Gracie felt they were the only ones who saw each other before all the world’s eyes were on them. His encounter with Elizabeth was something new and exciting that made him feel seen in that same way. But as he learns in their post-coital chat, his life is just a story to her. Here in his only adult sexual encounter outside of Gracie, Joe feels betrayed and used by someone he trusted. Sleeping with him, to get what she wanted and to understand what Gracie felt, is, to Elizabeth, “just what grown ups do.” Joe storms out and before he’s even driven away, she starts unraveling the letter, ready to absorb its contents.

When we see Joe next, he’s naked coming out of the shower. Here he looks at the camera as mirror for the first and only time. And for likely the first time in his adult life, he can see himself with a degree of clarity.

That night, Joe wakes Gracie to talk about things he has begun to remember and questions he has about the nature of their relationship, as if in seeing her skewed double he finally understands what was taken from him. He starts to half-question her if he wasn’t ready, but can’t fully commit because that would mean the children, his reason for existence these 20 odd years, wouldn’t exist. Gracie deflects and avoids accountability. She’s content with her life and won’t have it upset by anything as inconsequential as her faults.

We switch to Elizabeth. Another direct to camera, but here she’s in character as Gracie of 23 years ago, seemingly having put it all together. She delivers a heartbreaking monologue which is clearly the content of the letter. It is emotional and embodies a childlike fragility. For a moment, we can understand Gracie’s naïveté even. Elizabeth is sure she has got it. And so we begin to ask not only what one sees when looking at another, but what we see in ourself and the answer for some seems clearer than others.

The day of graduation comes and, despite all that’s happened, Joe gets a happy ending: He gets to see his monarch butterflies grow and fly away and then he gets to watch his children do the same. That same morning, Gracie goes hunting and spots a feral wild fox that she almost shoots before sharing a long gaze with it and recognizing how pitiful it is. It can’t pose her any real danger. This is echoed in May December’s penultimate scene, when Elizabeth and Gracie share a conversation just after the twin’s graduation though now both women are in sunglasses, reflecting the other in their gaze. Elizabeth is confident she has Gracie and the movie figured out before the housewife points out that what Georgie said about her childhood was a disgusting lie.

“Insecure people are very dangerous, aren’t they? I’m secure. Make sure you put that in there.” Elizabeth is agog while she watches Gracie walk away, realizing after all her watching, she still has no idea who she’s been looking at. Next, we’ll see the reality of her artistic journey. Her quest for truth led only to what appears to be another poorly acted movie. Bringing nothing of herself to her work, the performance shatters with nothing to prop it up but words and details.

When I think of the last two mirror shots in this film — Joe’s and Elizabeth’s, it brings to mind that Haynes’ used this very same visual device previously in his film Safe, and in that film, the one gazing upon themself and at us was Moore. Her character Carol White is an unfulfilled housewife who has spent the entire film experiencing increasingly alarming medical problems with no cause that doctors can see. While she assumes it’s a form of environmental illness, it’s notable that in each instance of sickness, there are also emotional factors of her feeling unseen by those around her. In an attempt to gain control of her life and combat her health problems, Carol removes herself from society and joins the Wrenwood estate, a compound occupied by a cult-like group of people similarly worried about their supposed chemical sensitivities. But Carol, unwilling to take up space, becomes gradually more isolated and sick, despite all her precautions to avoid toxic environments. She returns to a secluded dome she’s moved into after a birthday party they threw her. In the film’s final shot, looking more unwell than ever, she stares at the mirror (Hayne’s camera), and repeats “I love you. I really love you”.

One of the most interesting dichotomies in May December goes beyond just the act of looking or not looking but the experience of being seen. Feeling unseen by others is what drew Joe and Gracie to each other and very soon after they were watched by the whole world. In the present day, everyone in the small town they’ve brought such scandal to averts their eyes from them whenever they can, while Elizabeth is now watched by everyone for her celebrity status. Elizabeth lives to be watched not as herself but another and will stop at nothing to do it. She looks outward for “something true” not recognizing that art isn’t about finding objective reality but meaning from the space between what you see and what’s in you.

As philosopher Norman O. Brown once said, “meaning is not in things but in between them.”

May December is now streaming on Netflix.

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Chingy Nea

Chingy Nea is a writer, filmmaker, and critically acclaimed ex-girlfriend based out of Los Angeles and Oakland

Chingy has written 5 articles for us.


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