***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B-
starring Angela Bettis, Jeremy Sisto, Anna Faris, James Duval
written and directed by Lucky McKee
by Walter Chaw Lucky McKee takes a look at the end of the world and it comes half-blinded before a student version of Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day and a poster-shrine to Dario Argento's Opera. The apocalypse in May is the end of cinema, a self-consuming contemplation of itself as the product of genre, and so its touchstones are films that consider the horror of unnatural progeny, inappropriate consumption, and, of course, the literariness of "Frankenstein"'s exhumation and reconstitution tropes. When May (Angela Bettis) pleads at the picture's conclusion to be seen, more than the plaintive cry of a child molded by fear into something strange, it's an understanding that the life of cinema is like the span of any beast: naivety into optimism into cynicism into contemplation into, finally, a breed of facile irony fed by the mordancy of existence at its extremity.
May's desire to be the beheld object, then, becomes something born of a specific kind of self-knowledge that speaks to the idea that May, composed, as a character, of the exhumed fractions of genre debts, is the film's only Frankenstein's monster. If McKee ultimately can't provide the sort of epiphany that pushes May through from composite to archetype (and even its own failure seems commented upon), then at least he has the courage to regard film as nearing the very end of its post-modern effectiveness. It's all too possible, in fact, that the purpose of May is to identify the futility of cinema in this vein as parallel to the futility of being known in our lives as anything more than a collection of presumptions and weighted memories.
A quiet, solemn veterinary assistant, May seeks the perfect companion in something other than a doll in a glass booth (May's doll, shades of Tippi Hedren in her own glass cages in Marnie and The Birds)--observing that no matter how perfect people seem initially, they never fail to disappoint her. The idea of disappointment and alienation are the motors for May as May wanders through her life with a mixture of timidity and boldness. When she fixates on a mechanic, Adam (pitch-perfect Jeremy Sisto), with beautiful hands, she waits for him to notice her at a coffee shop before finally caressing herself with his fingers when he falls asleep at his table. The courtship between the two feels real, particularly when Adam understands that what he fetishizes as "weird" (Argento, Romero, et al) is nothing compared to the weird that May represents. McKee's interest in dividing lines will find its literal manifestation in the spider-webbing glass of May's doll case and, inevitably, the Jigsaw/Blind Beast-lines of vivisection and reconstruction.
May is heavy with visual symbolism and self-knowing hommage. Its strength is in its performance and ambition, and its weakness is that same ambition grown too large for the modesty of the film's framework. There seems, too, a desire to shock in the picture when a matter-of-factness would probably serve the purposes of the piece with more alacrity and faithfulness. Still, complaints I have with the film are relatively minor when one considers that May is the first picture since Trouble Every Day to make me turn away from the screen in anticipation of its lawlessness. It's not that the picture's cruelty is out of step with its themes (nor out of character for its players)--in fact, most of the atrocity herein is telegraphed from May's biting of her boyfriend's lip--but rather that its cruelty is too calculated, making the anticipation of which not so much exquisite as sadistic. The gore itself isn't exploitive, the milking of it is.
May is deceptively complicated in both its successes and its failures, flawed mainly in its aspiration, which is, after all, a failure of mind rather than a failure of heart or craft. It's not as good as Ravenous in that sense (though it's similar to that film in terms of its explosion of genre and queasy ulterior stratifications), but it manages to fulfill the promise of the best of what Ethan Mordden defines as the B-movie's ability to undermine and challenge--two qualities in such small supply (now and always) that the occasional loss of focus or choppiness in execution almost do more service to the point than detract from it.
by Bill Chambers Hitting theatres and DVD simultaneously in some markets, May is still worth trying to catch on the big screen, though Lions Gate's disc is nothing to sneeze at. The film is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that makes it look glossier than some pictures with a budget twice its size. The image shifts slightly on occasion as though stabilizing itself, but this appears to be an encoding issue related to the downconversion for 4:3 displays--certainly not a flaw in the print master. Echoing director Lucky McKee's visual philosophy, the savvy Dolby Digital 5.1 mix can favour effect over logic, like the sourceless light that always hits May's sewing machine: the sound of the glass doll-cage cracking, for instance, is somewhat sophistically thrown over the shoulder to sharpen its sting and heighten reality.
Extras include Easter egg-ish trailers for May, Confidence, and the debut season of TV's "The Dead Zone", as well as two feature-length group-commentary tracks. In the first, McKee joins stars Angela Bettis, Bret Roberts (the "Distraught Man in Vet"), and Nichole Hiltz (the leggy Ambrosia) in addition to cinematographer Steve Yedlin (who says all of ten words) and co-editor Chris Sivertson, while in the gratuitous second yakker (during which topics of the first are constantly referenced but rarely expanded upon), McKee joins music composer/supervisor Jaye Barnes, production designer Leslie Keel, co-editor Rian Johnson, and "craft services guy" Benji. Though the cat-hating, chili dog-loving McKee seems loath to take May, a movie he says was informed by Taxi Driver and Repulsion, too seriously in front of his giggly peers, it's clear that he invested his heart and soul in the production, ushering it through multiple drafts, reshoots, and re-edits. He and Bettis dominate the one track (which is briefly, bizarrely, interrupted by a harmonica solo), he and Keel the other; in both, it is hinted that the DVD will include deleted flashbacks to May's childhood, but such talk unfortunately proves cheap. Originally published: July 20, 2003.