Filmmaker Amanda Kramer’s latest is a surreal, erotic, and often romantic vision of nonconformity shot through the lens of classic Hollywood and inspired by the cinema of Kenneth Anger. In politics and the media, opportunistic hate-mongers whip up bigotry against gender non-conformity, while everyone in contemporary cinema is beautiful but no one is horny. In this context, Please Baby Please is a vision inspired by the past, but is undoubtedly a document of the present.
In the 1960s, Suze (Andrea Riseborough) and Arthur (Harry Melling) are married. Despite the fact that Arthur is (barely) closeted and as a result is a wreck of anxiety and self-emasculation, it’s not quite fair to say their marriage is a sham. They clearly care for each other and both benefit from the security and cover that their marriage provides; Arthur’s sexuality is centre stage for much of the film, but Suze’s butch dress sense and her flexibility with sub-dom relationships suggest pretty explicitly her own sexual fluidity.
Challenges to binaries are everywhere in Kramer’s film: its themes, sexuality and gender nonconformity are explicit, but transgression is the lifeblood of Please Baby Please, running through the film’s form in its conflation of the surreal and the grounded. Kramer has spoken about the artifice of the binary between reality and fantasy: “Hollywood usually tells you that your film can either be realistic or it can be a fantasy, which could mean anything from a children’s film to Marvel. But there are artists out there who are blending the two, like Leos Carax in ‘Annette.’ This is what I ache to accomplish” (Source).
And accomplished it she has, with a wonderfully constructed world that plays like some version of West Side Story with all that fable’s sublimated sexuality blossomed into the fetishism of a Kenneth Anger film, as well as the violence and bitter romance of Tom Waits and Tennessee Williams. The saturated colours of the lighting, jazz score, fetishistic biker costumes and musical-esque sequences present not mundane, objective reality but an interior reality of imagination and emotion, no less real than the duller exterior version.
What Please Baby Please doesn’t do, perhaps, is anything particularly new compared with its points of inspiration. Still, in our age of prurience and bigotry, perhaps the sorry contemporary context in which the film finds itself makes those old ideas new. Meanwhile, Riseborough and Melling’s performances are both masterclasses in bringing humanity and pathos to characters who inhabit an explicitly constructed world, and whose line deliveries and ruminations on the nature of gender performativity are necessarily mannered. Karl Glusman deserves mention, too, as the head of the biker gang The Young Gents, dripping equally with danger and desire.
Indeed, Riseborough, Melling and Glusman’s turns remind us that ‘realism’ is a relative term and that performance is often a matter of visibility – one of which we are reminded by the number of male actors in the film playing women characters and vice versa. The film never addresses whether these characters are intended as trans or cis. Nor does it matter: the point is that everyone is ultimately performing their identity. Among the tangled knots of desire, sex, and gender there is no fixed, immovable essential self, only the expression of one, in motion.