In 1996, the relationship between a Seattle school teacher, Mary Kay Letourneau, 34, married with four children, and her 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau, of Samoan descent, went around the world. The scandal broke out when Letourneau became pregnant with the child, and therefore it was learned that they had sexual relations. Her husband divorced her and she took her four offspring to Alaska, and there began a chain of events: Vili Fualaau’s parents denounced her and there was a trial. The sentence was light, only three months, but it would be harsher if she saw her student again. After giving birth to a girl, she went through a penitentiary, she came out of it and one morning in February 1998, the police discovered her together with the student in a car. A month later she announced that she was pregnant again. She entered prison with a sentence of seven and a half years, there she had her second daughter with Fualaau, and she did not leave until 2004.
As the ban on approaching the boy was maintained, Letourneau fought to have that order annulled and the following year she secretly married him. In the end, in 2018 a documentary confirmed that they were in the middle of the divorce process, but they did not separate: Letourneau was diagnosed with cancer and Fualaau stayed by his side until his death, at the age of 58, in July 2020. That drama was fodder for tabloids and syrup for trash TV shows, and now it has found a curious cinematographic reflection in May December, Todd Haynes’s film in competition at Cannes, starring Julianne Moore, as that woman here who became a temporary worker at a pet store in Savannah, and Natalie Portman, an Oscar-winning actress who spends a few days with her and her family to meet her before embodying her in a film indie.
Wearing a navy blue jacket and pants suit, Portman (Jerusalem, 41 years old) sits down to talk to a group of journalists. For the actress and director it is a very special job: it is the first film born from her production company, MountainA, and it was she who, script in hand, searched for the right director —”I immediately thought of Todd for his ability to portray the lives of suburbs”— and it was he who brought Julianne Moore to play that woman involved with a boy (in this version, with Korean parents) 23 years younger. “Todd was my first choice, a dream, and when he convinced Julianne it took my dream one step further,” she smiles.
Portman (who made her film debut playing a girl with a complex relationship with a murderer in Leon the professional in 1994) insists that in May December there is talk of both that case and the relationship between an actress and the character she is going to play. “My role serves as an excuse for us to consider whether art can be amoral. How many movies are made about serial killers, how many killings do we see on the screen without considering a value judgment ”, she points out.
Now, the reflection comes through a very shady character, in de Portman, and with some tones of black comedy, with wild moments and something of the visual and musical technique of soap operas, which gives May December a great twist. “I’ve been an actress for most of my life, so I’ve been researching that role for all those years,” she jokes. “What’s fascinating about the character is that she doesn’t mind acting all the time, how far she’s able to go for her job and the different layers of performance she brings to bear, even when she’s on her own.” On screen, her mirrors serve to delve into those moments, either with the actress, or with her and Moore’s character, in a game at times close to Person, by Bergman, at times similar to Almodóvar’s melodramas. “I have never played this in my private life, and after making this film [rompe a reír] I will never let my life go on screen.” In any case, who would embody it? “Surely someone who has not been born yet.”
That image of a parasitic actor, of a vampire of other people’s emotions to breathe life into his work, seems to Portman “a hackneyed cliché”. And he goes further: “It is also attributed to the narrators and I remember Chekhov’s words about it, about the use of words and feelings of others. Creating other lives in theater or cinema is for me an act of love and compassion, and enjoyment, of course.”
During the pandemic, Portman doubted the professional future: “I have been in this for so many years that I have seen the industry change radically. Now, I did not lose hope that at the end of the confinement I would act again. Because since we are human beings, we need to be told stories”.
In May December, the actress goes to give a talk to Moore’s young daughter’s drama class, and there she confesses that the sexual sequences are as irritating as they are fascinating, that sometimes she really gets carried away by the chemistry with her co-stars. “It is a moment that already stood out in the script. Well, we all have genuine feelings for other human beings, and it happens both in acting and in real life. You have to know how to manage it, and not confuse our work with our emotions. In my case, I have never felt comfortable with the sex sequences.
Another of the attractive challenges in the script, according to Portman, was to show “a crime that men usually carry out, now committed by a woman. That psychological leap is striking. And it happens because we have never seen all the possible versions of women on the screen. For me that would be achieving equality. We can be villains, athletes, silly, smart… Complex, and the more variety, the better”. Within this feminist work, Portman is one of the founders of a professional women’s soccer team in Los Angeles. “For some time now, I like riskier things, like this movie. I’ve been acting for decades, and now that I’ve moved over to production, I’ve discovered other challenges… and other difficulties. This time everything has flowed, and I hope to continue like this for a while ”.
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