Give Me Pity: Amanda Kramer’s sparkling 1980s TV daydream moves to its own demented rhythm

A musical performer’s dream gig on TV special is threatened by a disturbing presence on set in this camp, lipstick-smeared psychodrama.

Sophie von Haselberg as Sissy St. Claire in Give Me Pity (2023)

Amanda Kramer is a filmmaker who delights in subverting norms around nostalgia, gender, and violence on screen, and does so with a pleasurably weird art school sensibility that favours high artifice.

Her last feature – the hallucinatory 1950s gang film Please Baby Please (2022) – entered a dreamspace of faux-New York to stage its battle-of-the-sexes S&M fantasy, equal parts Hubert Selby Jr and West Side Story. With her film Give Me Pity, she borrows more from the likes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1979) and American TV specials, promising workaday razzle-dazzle to the masses in a grinning, well-coiffed package.

Musical performer Sissy St. Claire (Sophie von Haselberg, whose strange, slow-moving divadom imbues her whole body) has finally achieved her dream of making it on to a Saturday night TV special. It’s sometime in the early 1980s, and Kramer’s film is generously decked out with the trappings of a VHS aesthetic. Combined with its chintzy glamour and the studio’s careworn late-days-of-disco vibe, the production design and costuming are perfectly calibrated to the specifics of its moment. 

Littered by lens flares and sparkle, and recalling – in its OTT quasi-drag style – the work of John Waters, Kramer distinguishes all this shine with a smart internal engine of a plot, asking questions about the essential dysfunction of fame and the balancing act it requires of womanhood, specifically. Sitting in front of an old-school mirror and made-up in a mask of heavy slap, St. Claire ruminates on the trappings of beauty and the ugliness behind the effort.

St. Claire is a hammy performer, lipsticked and stilettoed to the nines and clearly ambitious to a fault, making strange proclamations to the audience that she will be forced to put to the test. Soon, the mood of the live show teeters into something ominous. Sissy begins to notice a sinister masked man hovering in the wings as she performs, looking positively demonic. As she starts to crack under the pressure, the film melts into its own demented rhythm, with bursts of psychedelic violence and a Christ-like internal narrative arc that pokes fun at both the era’s televangelist Christianity and at the self-importance of individual stardom in America.

Filmed with bizarre and colourful gusto, it’s a perfectly taut, 80-minute allegory on fame, femininity, and suffering – or killing – for one’s art.

 ► Give Me Pity is in select UK cinemas on 10 November.