In “Anatomy of a Scene,” we ask directors to reveal the secrets that go into making key scenes in their movies. See new episodes in the series on Fridays. You can also watch our collection of more than 150 videos on YouTube and subscribe to our YouTube channel.
Two women apply makeup in front of a mirror.
In the hands of some directors and performers, a moment like this might feel perfunctory. But when the director is the critically acclaimed Todd Haynes, and the performers are the Oscar winners Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, this kind of scene takes on layers of meaning.
The moment happens in “May December” (streaming on Netflix), which tells the story of an actress, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) whose latest job is to portray Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), a woman who became known for a scandal more than two decades ago involving a sexual relationship with a seventh-grader, whom she would eventually marry.
Elizabeth has gone to Savannah to spend time with Gracie and her family, and study her for the part. In this scene, Gracie shares her makeup routine while the two stand at a mirror. It’s one of several sequences in the film involving mirrors and long takes.
In an interview discussing those decisions, Haynes said that he wanted to “let the camera just hold and observe what goes on in these people’s lives, and this actress’s entree into their life, shattering the protection and castle walls that they’ve built around this family since that scandal occurred.”
Haynes said that while most scenes with Elizabeth frame her as the interrogator, this is one of the few times when Gracie asks Elizabeth questions.
With the mirrors and the merging of personalities in this shot, Haynes cited Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” as an influence. And he praised his performers for pulling it off.
“A shot like this is a great idea, but it doesn’t work unless you have Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman.” he said.