Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Amanda Kramer's Please Baby Please is showing exclusively on MUBI starting March 3, 2023, in the United States, and March 31, 2023, in most countries in the series The New Auteurs.
It says a lot that Amanda Kramer’s new film frequently features the tinkly strains of the Skyliners’ 1958 song “Since I Don’t Have You”: it has a woozily helpless romantic masochism that’s long since been discouraged by contemporary thinking about partnership. Although it may not actually take romantic suffering as its thesis, Please Baby Please—another title reminiscent of a yearning-filled doo-wop track—does embody that song’s aura of lyrical self-flagellation in a host of surprising and bold ways. Kramer’s film retools the gendered conventions around sacrifice and control in a partnership, allowing that audio cue to exemplify the paradox of power and sex in romantic love.
In the deconstructed, psychosexual nightmare of Please Baby Please, Suze (Andrea Riseborough) and Arthur (Harry Melling), a married couple in late-1950s New York City, witness the street killings of two people by local leather-jacketed psychopaths, a gang known as the Young Gents and led by Teddy (Karl Glusman). After they become a possible target for the gang’s antics—and equally seem hypnotically fascinated by the virile appeal of the gang in spite of the violence they’ve witnessed—the pair go on a strange odyssey through the dynamics of their own marriage, shifting gender roles and exchanging increasingly heated, provocative conversation with their disaffected friends. Along the way, their run-ins with Teddy and the gang become punctuated by confused, heat-cramped sensuality—particularly Arthur’s flirtatious exchanges with Teddy in barroom toilets.
Please Baby Please both provides endless homage to, and is in dialogue with, cinematic precursors including Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963), West Side Story (1961), Douglas Sirk melodrama, Streets of Fire (1984), and countless other films of this type: a sharp-elbow-to-the-ribs of gender convention in which the central couple slip between affinities and presentation in a feedback loop of desire. There is something knowingly absurd about it all, but the ways in which Kramer takes a scalpel to the conventions of so many of these primary references keeps things fresh.
Bathed in primary-colored lights, mostly red or blue—the colors of jazz clubs and police sirens, Technicolor Robert Wise movies and Gaspar Noé’s sex clubs—there’s not even a remote inkling toward realism here. The film’s hyper-stylized city block, apparently in New York but really existing in some strange liminal space, is vividly captured by cinematographer Patrick Meade Jones, whose work on Kramer’s other films have been equally and artfully anti-banal.
That’s all before you get to the musical fantasy sequences, including several featuring absurd S&M, playing with Eisenhower-era imagery of kitchen appliances alongside Bob Mizer-esque shots of male bodies. Suze gets a hot clothes iron applied tantalizingly to her bottom, though it isn’t played for gore so much as music-video surface weirdness. The scenes are ridiculous and purposefully unsubtle, and if they don’t get the point across on its own, there’s a one with Demi Moore—here in a cameo as a mysterious and glam upstairs neighbor who calls herself a “slum starlet”—spelling out the paradox. “What if you wanna get a little choked?” she asks Riseborough’s entranced Suze, as she monologues about sex. “Not too tight. Just for fun.” Suze’s response is telling. “You can’t have it both ways with men,” she says, sounding for all the world like a stereotypical sighing housewife, before pausing and adding: “....can you?”
Kramer isn’t kink-shaming, exactly, but it’s this loaded exchange that sets up the framework for what’s to come in Please Baby Please: heterosexual submission and domination is an echo of how men and women exist in the world, after all, and maybe it’s difficult to divorce the two things. The alternative that Kramer offers is more complex and interesting, and Riseborough gives a love-it-or-hate-it, full-throated performance expressing just this, though a viewer’s latitude for it may vary given all its postmodern affectation. It’s fascinating and disturbing to watch: an intellectual and physically tactile provocation.
“I wanna worship you and be beneath you,” she tells her husband, seductively posed on her knees in front of him, but when Arthur cannot or will not play into her desire for domination, she veers wildly in the other direction: it is she who lowers her voice and grows more androgynous, she who thrusts her hips forward with a phallic beer bottle held to her crotch, she who protects her man from the sexual and physical threat of the Young Gents, and she who commits a penultimate act of violence to that end.
As the film progresses, Riseborough grows more sinewy and animalistic; she becomes a sexual cartoon, an avatar of both butch and femme pushed to their furthest possible extension. In one moment, she is a Sirkian heroine in romantic anguish, flailing and throwing herself on a sofa; in the next, a snarling, walking hard-on in blue jeans, deepening her voice with alarming fury. Harry Melling, meanwhile, with his forlorn mien and overlarge eyes, is “tender,” as Demi Moore’s upstairs neighbor puts it, providing a surprisingly soft counterpart for a husband in the 1950s-set film: he self-describes as a man who feels no need to “act male,” and points out early in the film in disgust: “The world of men is always one of comparison and measurement.”
We see cis women, trans men, and a variety of others whose worlds are atrophied by the confines of machismo, whether it be by upholding it or tacitly supporting it; these characters are made monstrous by the demands and the appeals of male violence. “Call me old-fashioned, but I like it when a man takes the lead,” says a camp gay man to Suze and Arthur in one unpleasant exchange. In another—the one which precipitates violence—a gang member taunts Suze: “No way she’s got a muffin in her pants,” a crass echo of the kind of transphobia that isn’t unfamiliar today. In the weird fantasia of Please Baby Please, Suze fully “enacts” her masculinity by responding to the insult with violence.
Form matches content in that fantastical respect. The entire film has an otherworldly stage rehearsal quality, with the sense that nothing in it is glossed-up for an actual performance: hair is disheveled, makeup half-done or smeared, blouses unbuttoned. The entire performance style is ad-hoc, like Kramer is letting her actors improvise: they play, fight, and try identities on for size. This pointed artifice is another argument against the film’s stance on the “authenticity” of gender; if Judith Butler called gender identity a “stylized repetition of acts” then you can certainly see the intentional lack of repetition here, a fluidity that suggests nothing is fixed permanently but is open to exploration.
Perhaps of all the films Kramer borrows her visual vernacular from, it’s not the clear nods to a film like West Side Story (opening as it does with carefully choreographed greaser hoodlums in an amalgamation of a fighting/dancing pose), but the 1989 Hubert Selby Jr. adaptation Last Exit to Brooklyn that so dramatically coaxes Please Baby Please into the heady, off-kilter world of sexual no-man’s-land. Precipitated as it is on caveman assumptions about men and women, but shucked of any bourgeois chivalry we might associate with the mid-century, it leaves us with only the carnal, violent rubble of those roles. Where Please Baby Please diverges is that it finds hope where Last Exit finds none: there’s an unwillingness to be pessimistic about gender relations even as Kramer skewers them.
In an interview for Film Comment, the director explained: “A couple traveling through a ‘queerification’ of their relationship can find a way to stay and evolve together”; and this is precisely what Suze and Arthur do in the closing sequence. Perhaps it is Pollyannaish to imagine such openness to fluidity, polyamory, and acceptance—in spite of the disasters and tragedies provoked by traditional heteronormativity. If Please Baby Please remains a fantasy filtered through an imagined past, its final split-screen sequence of lighthearted dance and menacing macho posturing has much to say about contemporary gender dichotomy (split screen certainly literalizes the divide). It may not be aiming for academic precision so much as for existing as an extravagant statement piece, but that feels just as worthwhile.
It’s worth mentioning that the old song—“Since I Don’t Have You”—also features in a strange, out-of-tune performance by a drag queen at a phone booth, a non-sequitur characteristic of the movie that pops up midway through. It’s a reminder that no matter who is singing those hauntingly desperate words, that Kramer feels human nature has certain demands: that there will always be an aggressor and a victim, controller and controlled, sub and dom, “man” and “woman.” That Please Baby Please is neither downbeat nor retrograde about that perceived truth is really where it finds magic.