The opening moments of Amanda Kramer’s “Please Baby Please” play like an archly stylized “West Side Story” by way of Kenneth Anger. Only, instead of the Jets, we have the “Young Gents,” a group of leather-clad rascals who dance their way through the streets of a neon-tinged, foggy 1950s Manhattan before descending on an unsuspecting couple and, well, beating them to death. Looking like Marlon Brando circa “The Wild One” cosplayers, this ragtag group is interrupted by two stunned bystanders, Arthur and Suze (Harry Melling and Andrea Riseborough). The moment will change the bohemian couple forever. The lustful gazes exchanged between Arthur and Teddy (the always delectable Karl Glusman, here in full leather boy cruising mode), as well as the electrifying fear-turned-titillation Suze experiences (Arthur may want, but Suze wants to be Teddy), set them both on a conquest to undo the relationship they thought they wanted. In the process, Kramer sketches out a feverish queer manifesto on gender that feels both novel and familiar.
For by the time the Young Gents flee into the night, leaving Suze and Arthur to take in what they just witnessed, “Please Baby Please” firmly situates itself alongside a queer constellation of artists and filmmakers (like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and John Waters) whose penchant for theatricality grounds their work. Kramer has no interest in naturalism or for trafficking in the realm of the real. Instead, with streets and apartments that look very much like sound stages and sparsely dressed sets (courtesy of newcomer Bette Adams), costumes that feel straight out of Greenaway or early Almodóvar (by Ashley Heathcock), and performances that could just as well 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 about the fluidity of gender and desire.
Yet to reduce “Please Baby Please” to its influences is to miss the point. Queer art has long pilfered and repurposed everything around, making citations and homages the very fabric which their stories are quilted and stitched from. The specter of Brando, for instance (not just “The Wild One” but his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski) hovers over Kramer’s film not just as point of reference but as an embodied example of postwar masculinity. Dissecting his appeal through Suze and Arthur, Kramer tries to examine and exhume Brando’s queer appeal showing how his characters need not only be brute instantiations of masculine aggression. They can also be pinups for soft young men drawn to their sweaty muscles and leather jackets, or role models to butch young women drawn to their confidence and swagger.
Intellectual musings aside, Kramer’s film is an ebullient, campy thrill ride. This is a project that understands one should always give Demi Moore a movie star entrance. Her Maureen is first heard off screen before we get glimpses of her animal print coat, her salmon pantsuit and her silver heels. As she invites Suze upstairs to her apartment (which, it must be noted, is literally blue all over), we’re encouraged to get lost in the fantasy Moore creates for us. As she later tells Suze, she may be a wife, but she’s no “wifey” (“I ought to be famous,” she also adds, “but I’m just married”). The interaction between the two neighbors is dizzying; you immediately understand why Suze would be conflicted by how attracted she becomes to Maureen’s life as a kept woman (she has a dishwasher!) even as she can only apprehend it as an S&M fantasy (in a musical interlude that will later include the Young Gents playfully hurting her with an iron).
These descriptions can’t ever capture the sheer boldness of Kramer’s vision nor of Riseborough’s fearless performance. With a script that takes its self-seriousness as its greatest asset (how else to get away with lines like “I will not be terrorized into acting like a savage just because I was born male,” as Arthur protests early on, “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 as scenes bracketed by quotation marks.
There’s a winking knowingness that welcomes us into the crisis of masculinity that afflicts Suze and Arthur alike. And while tender Melling (and seductive Glusman) are gamely cast, it is Riseborough who emerges as the film’s MVP. The “Luxor” and “Oblivion” actress has yet to meet a project she can’t wholeheartedly sink and slink herself into. As Suze she’s as fearless as she’s ever been, gifting this bohemian woman a powder keg of a physicality; she may be playing to the rafters with her exaggerated cat-eye makeup and enunciated, near-Brechtian affectation, but that just 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 not an understatement to say there are few feature films quite like “Please Baby Please” being produced let alone distributed in 2022. This is a film that turns what could otherwise be a glib throwaway theoretical query — “What is a man, anyway?” — into a seminal question of style and sensibility, one as much about what you wear as who you screw. And just like the tradition it is so obviously trying to insert itself into, the tenor of the film will easily help this delightfully off-kilter project find the fans it deserves. Namely, those who enjoy the prospect of seeing the endlessly entertaining Cole Escola (“Search Party,” “At Home with Amy Sedaris”) singing a heartbreak song in a phone booth in full 1950s housewife drag and who are keen to see More mime how it is she hopes to be choked by her “daddy.”