‘Please Baby Please’ Review: A Queer Exhibition

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Harry Melling and Andrea Riseborough in PLEASE BABY PLEASE. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Amanda Kramer’s new pseudo-musical phantasmagoria imagines a world of gender and sexual freedom, however, one may question why liberation of this sort has been given such an other-worldly, seemingly unrealistic status.

★★★✰✰

The free-flowing identities of the film’s characters—such as Teddy (Karl Glusman), an openly gay 1950s biker—is one that defines modern queer theory: there are no definable genders, only a collection of gendered attributes that, as linguists call it, ‘do gender’. Please Baby Please is undoubtedly a vehicle for such ideas, using outrageous sets and acting styles to symbolise the fluidity and freedom of gender.

Kramer’s film provides a world where this theory is reality, but its dreamlike approach undermines the importance of the individual.  Sue-Ellen Case calls for a queer theory that ‘works not at the site of gender, but at the site of ontology’ (‘ontology’ here referring to the way a person is built; their individuality).  If we cannot see ourselves in the film, is it not useless?

The film opens with newlyweds Arthur (Harry Melling) and Suze (Andrea Riseborough) arriving at their new place, only to be met by a display of violence as Teddy and his gang of Young Gents mug an unassuming couple in front of them. The pair have distinctly different take aways from this: Arthur becomes infatuated by Teddy, while Suze assumes a Stanley Kowalski–type responsibility over the apartment (at one point literally saying, “I’m the king around here, and don’t you forget it!”). The film ends with a presentation of the two in what can only be described—given how pointedly they are exhibited—as their ‘final forms’.

What allows for these transformations, and is one of the highlights of the film, is the acting. Riseborough morphs herself as fluidly as the milieu she occupies, simultaneously ogled and feared by her peers. Glusman and Melling share a passionate dynamic, the former remaining ambiguous in his interest in the latter, who embodies romantic obsession. Outside of these dynamics, however, there isn’t much of a narrative. What plays out is solely exteriorisation of their emotions into other entities, in a sort of Lynchian fever dream-like style (certainly helped by the very artificial dingy-street setting that the action happens in).

Karl Glusman in PLEASE BABY PLEASE. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

What is apparent, both from the performances and the loose story line, is that Kramer’s world has no rules around sexuality, which is translated brilliantly through experiments with sexual semiology. Kramer unashamedly questions sex as an ideology, both by subverting pre-existing sexual signifiers and making up new ones. Maureen, the couple’s upstairs neighbour, is a perfect example. Her apartment is approached with allure: a smooth saxophone accompaniment with soft focus on her abode. It comes as a surprise, then, that everything is blue (where one might expect it to be red or pink). Maureen is played by Demi Moore, herself a sexual signifier of Ghost (1990) fame. But this is no problematic ‘80s blockbuster—Kramer has instead put her in an eluding head-scarf, turning her into somewhat of a mysterious ‘mad woman upstairs’–type. Much like the experiments with semiology famous in avant-garde filmmaking, sex in cinema is being exposed for what it really is: a vehicle for an ideology of traditional gender roles, something that Kramer successfully subverts.

There is, however, an ever-present problem with this representation. As earlier addressed, the film’s main purpose appears to be showing us what true sexual liberation looks like. But as is the case for the previous examples, Kramer’s Bakhtinian celebration of sexual freedom is too far removed from reality to have an effect. Of course, Kramer is showing us an ideal end-goal, so the premise won’t necessarily be completely rooted in realism. However, with the absurdist comedy and ‘uncanny valley’ set pieces, the film doesn’t have enough of a foothold on reality to warrant commentary on it. Where some have criticised other on-screen queer representations for having too much explicit sex, unable to translate such levels of passionate love on screen and thus being reduced to objective sexuality, Please Baby Please goes too far in the other direction, not giving the audience enough to see themselves in. 

Cole Escolar and Andrea Riseborough in PLEASE BABY PLEASE. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

One mustn’t forget to mention, however, the few instances where we do see groundings to launch from. The constant reference to A Streetcar Named Desire is the most notable, as well as Teddy’s dressing-up like Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) and the couple’s dancing scene that playfully resembles the famous scene in Godard’s Bande à Part (1963); a film oozing with rebellious spirit. Brando, being the epitome of classic masculinity, is a sexual signifier in himself à la ‘ideal ego’, (as Laura Mulvey would put it).

Alexander Doty posits queer theory (as an identification of “queerness”) as being anything that is ‘not straight’. Please Baby Please, in its creative restlessness and subversion of screen-sex ideology, is so wonderfully queer—something that must not go unrecognised. The film, then, should perhaps be seen as a starting point for thinking about the ideas it presents, rather than the finished product. As her friend Ida says to Suze some way through the film: “we are choice”. Kramer has shown us not what choices we should make, but that the conditions are finally right for us to, without adversity, make whichever choices we want—we are choice, because our categorisation finally “works at the site of our ontology”.

The Verdict

Kramer’s film is a burst of liberated sexual and gender expression, questioning our understanding of what sex means. While the ethereal, Lynchian qualities of the film push it slightly out of reality, what it inspires in the viewer is no less valuable to the sexual liberation cause that it so ardently fights for.

Please Baby Please is on MUBI UK from 31st March.

Words by Oisín McGilloway


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