Director: Amanda Kramer
Stars: Harry Melling, Karl Glusman, Andrea Riseborough
With puckish pink cursive opening titles, the low-creeping advancement of ’50s greaser gang the “Young Gents”, and the saucy big brass of it’s score, Amanda Kramer’s Please Baby Please comes on with plenty of swagger. We’re on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Newlywed beatnik types Arthur (Harry Melling) and Suze (Andrea Riseborough) indulge in conversive battle with their friends over gender conventions and societal roles, safe in the cocoon of pure theory. Suze encourages her husband to roleplay, yearning to play out a submissive position in their relationship when she is clearly the more confident persona. Kramer blocks theatrically, encouraging us to see all her world as a stage, thrusting forward a quasi-musical genderbending spectacle.
Arthur and Suze are fearful of the encroaching violence that typifies their neighbourhood, holding one another close in the night as reprobates howl and batter trashcans in the dark of the alleys. But their restlessness extends to the widening schism between them. Arthur lives in his head and finds security in consistency. He fears change. Suze increasingly wants to evolve, wants more. And more is on offer…
“Are you famous?” she asks in hushed tones on meeting her exotic neighbour. There’s a meta-weight, then, to the revelation of Demi Moore in the all-too-brief role of ‘slum starlet’ Maureen. Maureen provokes Suze’s underlying yearning for greater sexual gratification, engendering much of the remainder of the film from the velvet blues of her apartment filled with painted white goods that she wryly refers to as her vibrators.
While Arthur gets to revel in Karl Glusman’s toughie Teddy literally coming out of his closet, it’s easy to see why Kramer nominally favours Suze. Riseborough is a dream; all manic eyeliner, freeze-frame expressiveness and overt sexual energy. She’s having a fucking ball.”How does a woman get respected?” Suze asks, exasperated. Please Baby Please extols a feminist awakening both intellectual and sexual, questioning the spaces where the two abut one another and vie for supremacy. Melling gets his time to shine, too, but it’s at a different register, more exasperated and steeped in introspection.
This isn’t intended as a realistic evocation of ’50s NYC. It’s akin to Cronenberg’s hot restyling for Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch. A comic book rendering. Kramer’s is dripping in style. Awash in the blues and pinks of so-called ‘bisexual lighting’. Her vision of the Lower East Side is a roiling, forever-fluid ocean of undulating horniness, swapped roles and spontaneous dance numbers. All kinks welcome. All desires catered for, so long as one can free oneself from shame and repression. Suze fantasies about being branded on the ass with a hot iron; her blank expression broadening into a smile direct to camera. She relishes her dream worlds, but Arthur seems more afraid of his, even spitting at his own reflection as he starts opening up about gender dysmorphia. Subtle? Of course not. Subtlety isn’t the point at Kramer’s delectable jazz club, a place where it’s always night. Things do verge on running out of steam come the final stretch (even with a Dana Ashbrook cameo), still the atmosphere is so heady that such stalls are forgivable.
The cineaste nods of Please Baby Please cross the stratosphere. Everything from John Waters to David Lynch to Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Such overt hat-tipping might threaten to diminish Kramer’s own accomplishments, but her stylistic confidence amounts to a pronounced thumbprint all of her own. Comparable to – yet miles apart from – Anna Biller’s sense of exacting taste. Like the band Suicide whose lyrics are almost paraphrased in the film’s very name, Please Baby Please feels like an utterly sincere love letter to the past spiked with something urgent and present; its combative insistence on queering all things. Yes, it’s kind of wonderful.