The opening moments of Amanda Kramer’s “Please Baby Please” play like an expertly stylized “West Side Story” by Kenneth Anger. Only, instead of the Jets, we have the “Young Gents”, a group of leather-clad rogues who dance through the streets of foggy, neon 1950s Manhattan before stumbling upon an unsuspecting couple and, well, to beat them to death. Resembling Marlon Brando to “The Wild One” cosplayers, this ragtag group is interrupted by two stunned passers-by, Arthur and Suze (Harry Melling and Andrea Riseborough). The moment will change the bohemian couple forever. The lustful glances exchanged between Arthur and Teddy (the ever-delectable Karl Glusman, here in all-leather cruise mode), as well as Suze’s electrifying experiences of fear-turned-titillation (Arthur may want, but Suze will to be Teddy), set them both on a quest to undo the relationship they thought they wanted. In the process, Kramer sketches out a feverish queer gender manifesto that feels both new and familiar.
For as the Young Gents flee into the night, leaving Suze and Arthur to process what they have just witnessed, “Please Baby Please” stands firmly alongside a queer constellation of artists and filmmakers ( such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and John Waters) whose penchant for theatricality underlies their work. Kramer has no interest in naturalism or traffic in the realm of the real. Instead, with streets and apartments that look a lot like sound stages and sparsely dressed sets (courtesy newcomer Bette Adams), costumes that look straight out of Greenaway or early Almodóvar (by Ashley Heathcock), and performances that could just as easily belong in an experimental downtown black box theater production or a late night cabaret revue, what we have here instead is a highly literate production on the fluidity of gender and desire.
However, to reduce “Please Baby Please” to its influences is to miss the point. Queer art has long plundered and repurposed everything around it, making quotes and homages the very fabric from which their stories are quilted and sewn. The specter of Brando, for example (not just “The Wild One” but his rendition of Stanley Kowalski) looms over Kramer’s film not just as a point of reference but as an epitome of post-war masculinity. Dissecting his appeal through Suze and Arthur, Kramer attempts to examine and unearth Brando’s queer appeal by showing how his characters need not just be raw instantiations of male aggression. They can also be pin-ups for sweet young men attracted to their sweaty muscles and leather jackets, or models to butt young women attracted to their confidence and swagger.
Intellectual musings aside, Kramer’s film is an exuberant, campy thrill ride. It’s a project that understands always giving Demi Moore a movie star entrance. Her Maureen is first heard offscreen before we get a glimpse of her animal print coat, salmon pantsuit and silver heels. As she invites Suze upstairs to her apartment (which, it should be noted, is literally blue everywhere), we are encouraged to get lost in the fantasy that Moore creates for us. As she later tells Suze, she may be a wife, but she’s not a “wife” (“I should be famous,” she also adds, “but I just got married “). The interaction between the two neighbors is dizzying; you immediately understand why Suze would conflict with her attraction to Maureen’s life as a kept woman (she has a dishwasher!) even if she can only apprehend it as an S&M fantasy (in a musical interlude that will include later the Young Gents by wounding her with an iron).
These descriptions can never capture the sheer audacity of Kramer’s vision or Riseborough’s fearless performance. With a script that takes its self-seriousness as its greatest asset (how else can it get away with lines like “I won’t be terrified by acting like a savage just because I was born a man”, as Arthur protests from the beginning, “and I don’t want to be rewarded for it either”?), Kramer and co-writer Noel David Taylor openly ask viewers to understand what they’re watching in the form of quote-unquote scenes.
There’s a winking acquaintance who welcomes us into the crisis of masculinity that afflicts Suze and Arthur. And while the sweet Melling (and the seductive Glusman) are well cast, it’s Riseborough who emerges as the film’s MVP. The ‘Luxor’ and ‘Oblivion’ actress has yet to come across a project she can’t heartily sink into and squeeze into. As Suze, she’s as fearless as she’s ever been, giving this bohemian woman a physical powder keg; she may be playing chevrons with her over-the-top cat-eye makeup and outspoken, almost Brechtian affectation, but it makes Suze all the more magnetic. You never dare take your eyes off her; like many around her, you never know what she might do next.
It’s no understatement to say that there are few feature films like ‘Please Baby Please’ being produced let alone released in 2022. It’s a film that spins what might otherwise be a casual academic question –” What’s a man, anyway?” – down to a fundamental question of style and sensibility, as much about what you wear as who you fuck. And just like the tradition in which he so obviously tries to slot in, the tenor of the film will easily help this delightfully offbeat project find the fans it deserves, namely those who relish the prospect of seeing Cole Escola (“Search Party,” “At Home with Amy Sedaris”), endlessly entertaining, singing a heartbreaking song in a phone booth in full 1950s housewife drag and can’t wait to see More mime how it is she hopes to be smothered by her “daddy”.