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- Reviewed from the 2022 International Film Festival Rotterdam
The leather jacket-clad gangs of the 50s are filtered through violescent 80s neon to create a queer vision of New York in Amanda Kramer’s new almost-musical, Please Baby Please. An interrogation of normative gender roles via the aesthetics of John Waters and Kenneth Anger, this is a heady concoction that somehow blends camp melodrama and romantic ballads with S&M dance sequences and Brechtian anti-theatricality. The literary critic Martin Puchner once described Brecht’s philosophy as ‘theatre on a leash’ and Kramer winkingly takes the term in an entirely new direction.
It begins with a brutal murder; two innocents are beaten to death by a group of thugs called the ‘Young Gents’ dancing their way through stage sets of foggy nocturnal alleys. Their crime is witnessed by a couple – Arthur (Harry Melling) and Suze (Andrea Riseborough) – who stand agog and transfixed, both about to be transformed forever by what is before them. The gang fall somewhere on a spectrum between Grease’s T-birds and The Beetles, Lee Marvin’s motorcycle gang from The Wild One. The most prominent among them, Teddy (Karl Glusman) echoes Brando’s Johnny from that latter film and, with a twist on the familiar saying, Suze wants to be him while Arthur wants to be with him. This dynamic of Arthur actively rejecting the expectations of masculinity and Suze coveting the freedom and power it affords will produce the film’s central drama.
Across the board the performances are extravagant and arch, led in wild, scenery-chewing fashion by an electrifying Riseborough. While initially seduced by the allure of dutiful domesticity and all the mod cons – particularly in a sequence she shares with an upstairs neighbour, and kept woman, Maureen (a scene-stealing Demi Moore) – Suze soon rejects it outright for the snarling, guttural aggression Arthur is incapable of. In service of the film’s playful dissection of Brando as both symbol of post-war masculinity and queer icon, Riseborough channels Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire as much as any other role. She’s ably supported by Melling’s earnest gentleness, and he shares some great moments of tender homoerotic chemistry with the smouldering Glusman. The three of them are positively magnetic.
The question remains whether Please Baby Please quite manages to compete with the genuinely transgressive queerness of the filmmakers that it lovingly emulates. Its depictions of heteronormative oppression – from the performative femininity of Moore to the numerous modes of masculinity displayed in the gang and beyond – are varied and rich but rather than shocking, its discourse can, by the climax, feel somewhat repetitive and stultifying. Still, Kramer is in complete command of the film’s breathy, lurid tone right up to its perfectly considered final frame, and the appeal of its kitsch nostalgia never wanes.