The term “queer” has exploded in the last few decades: Once a mere synonym for “strange,” “queer” was reportedly used as a homophobic slur starting in the late 19th century. While the word enjoyed reclamation in activist circles throughout the 20th century, its recent mainstream adoption has been swift and unprecedented. Where “queer” used to add a biting edge to the works of avant-garde artists or radical protestors, now you’re just as likely to see it describe the CEO of Land O’Lakes butter.
These days, the word “queer” does a lot of heavy lifting, and it certainly encompasses more than homosexuality. Depending what academic theory you read, “queer” can be used as a noun, adjective or verb, or as an identity label or a descriptor for any non-normative person or behavior. Optimists may call it an umbrella term. Pessimists may call it meaningless.
Perhaps because “queerness” has become so expansive, it now fails to signify much of anything at all. That is at least the feeling prompted by “Please Baby Please,” an experimental satire from director Amanda Kramer, which she co-wrote with Noel David Taylor. Billed as a “genderqueer extravaganza” awash with “silk, sweat, and bisexual lighting,” “Please Baby Please” may pay homage to queer aesthetics, but it fails to make any coherent points about gender or sexuality.
“Please Baby Please” values eye-popping set pieces far more than narrative cohesion, but its plot is more or less this: In the 1950s, hip New York heteros Arthur (Harry Melling, from “The Queen’s Gambit” and the “Harry Potter” films) and Suze (Andrea Riseborough, “Mandy”) reexamine their relationships to gender, eroticism and each other. A crew of flamboyant-yet-menacing leather daddies called the Young Gents beguile both of them. Arthur is powerfully attracted to the doe-eyed gangster Teddy (Karl Glusman, “Watcher”) while Suze seems taken with leather life writ large. She also admires the laissez-faire life of their upstairs neighbor, rich housewife Maureen (Demi Moore).
While this film is stacked with talent — namely the chameleonic Riseborough, who also gets an executive producer credit — that only highlights its limitations. Riseborough is determined to go big as Suze, adopting a gruff affect and bellowing her lines as she tries to mimic the Young Gents’ masculinity. Glusman and Melling have electric chemistry, and Melling pulls off Arthur’s wide-eyed neuroticism with impressive charm.
But these pros only have so much scenery to chew. Suze intrigues at first, as she struggles to reconcile her place in the sexual food chain, but her tough-guy act quickly jumps the shark. Arthur quickly feels overwrought, too; his sensitive-boy shtick becomes exhausting in its repetition. In a film with little cohesive dialogue, Arthur gets several speeches about his alienation from masculinity. One would have been sufficient.
At least Arthur’s motivations make sense — it must be destabilizing to be in a heterosexual marriage in the 1950s and suddenly feel homosexual attraction. Suze is more of a puzzler. After seeing the Young Gents murder two civilians, she asks Arthur to be less “precious” with her and tells him she wants to be “beneath” him. Her upstairs neighbor Maureen fascinates her with questions of female empowerment and submission.
Suze grapples with her role as a wife, unsure how to please her husband in this brave new world. “How do I give it to him the way he wants to get it?” she asks a random butch in a movie theater, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub (“24”).
In some ways, it’s a subversive question, as 1950s housewives were hardly encouraged to “give it” to their husbands. But Suze is still focused on how best to be a pleasing wife. While Arthur has a rendezvous with his leather-clad love, Suze remains steadfast in her marriage. If her new love of leather is meant to signify some latent lesbianism — the theatergoer calls her a “butchie”; a gay man calls her a “dyke” — she certainly never walks the walk.
In fact, for a film so outwardly obsessed with gay eroticism, “Please Baby Please” is shockingly sexless. Arthur and Teddy consummate their connection with a make-out session only in the very final scene. Suze apparently entertains fantasies of submission and domination, but her actual desires are frustratingly unclear. Though she fantasizes about BDSM play with the Young Gents in a few sequences, those desires stay within the confines of her head. It is undoubtedly cheeky to show a Tom of Finland–esque leather daddy branding a 1950s beatnik housewife with a clothing iron, but if these shocking ideas actually impact Suze’s sex life, we don’t see it happen. Instead, she adopts a domineering affect to complement her sissy husband.
There have been plenty of films about gay desire and female ambivalence. “Please Baby Please” may crib aesthetics and concepts from both, but with little more than irony to bolster its hifalutin themes, this film falls flat. This is a Kenneth Anger short stretched to a mind-numbing 95 minutes, a Gregg Araki shocker without any sex or teeth, “But I’m a Cheerleader” with all of the oversaturated production design and none of the urgency. “Babysitter” by Monia Chokri, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is just as sumptuous and strange, while actually giving its female lead something to do.
But maybe this is ultimately an accurate portrait of queerness today. “Queer,” that formerly strident word, is now a ubiquitous marketing term. So if a film looks subversive, who cares what it actually has to say?
“Please Baby Please” opens in US theaters Oct. 28 via Music Box Films.