State of the Arts

May December and Saltburn aren’t original movies – why won’t their directors admit it?

Bad artists copy and good artists steal, said Dali. The influences in the new films by Emerald Fennell and Todd Haynes are so potent they practically become co-directors, writes Xan Brooks. But the reality of modern filmmaking is that most new cinema is old cinema cannibalised, borrowed and endlessly adapted

Saturday 18 November 2023 06:30
<p>Taking notes: Rosamund Pike in Emerald Fennell’s ‘Saltburn’, and Natalie Portman in Todd Haynes’s ‘May December’ </p>

Taking notes: Rosamund Pike in Emerald Fennell’s ‘Saltburn’, and Natalie Portman in Todd Haynes’s ‘May December’

Film itself is the subject of Todd Haynes’s May December, a rambunctious drama-about-drama that follows the making of a Hollywood biopic. Natalie Portman is Elizabeth, the actor who’s preparing to impersonate Gracie (Julianne Moore), a scandal-struck Southern belle. Elizabeth wants to get Gracie’s story just right – or at least just right for the screen, which isn’t quite the same thing. “I feel that I’m getting close to something real, something true,” she says, although pensive Gracie is altogether less sure. Performance is a fiction. Every script warps the facts. These creative collaborators, it’s clear, aren’t really on the same page.

Ironically, perhaps fittingly, May December’s air of dissonance appears to have bled out of the screen, too. When Haynes’s film premiered at the Cannes film festival in May, most critics saw it as I did: a playful cymbal-clash of high art and trash culture; a psychological chamber-piece in the guise of a lurid daytime soap. The director, however, couldn’t disagree more. “This term that came out of the reviews at Cannes was of the film being camp, quoting tabloid television movies, or soap operas,” Haynes said in an interview with Variety last month. “No. That was not anything I was trying to do at all.” He seemed bemused by the confusion and our lack of understanding. Just as Elizabeth misreads Gracie, the critics had misread his damn film.

Neither position is the wrong one, exactly. The director sees their film one way, the viewer sees it another. That’s the thrill of the exchange; the magic of cinema. But there are other complicating factors here, too, because May December isn’t simply a conversation between Haynes and his audience; it’s a conversation between Haynes and his audience and a range of imported film styles. The picture nods to the arthouse severity of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). It basks in the humid melodrama of Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971), with its themes of sex, class and family scandal. But it also takes its lead (whether knowingly or not) from the sort of tacky TV biopic that reduces real life to shrink-wrapped entertainment. Each of these references leave a thumbprint on the film. The influences are so potent they practically become co-directors.

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