Give Me Pity! review – brilliantly observed hallucinatory nightmare of 80s showbiz | Film

Musician turned film-maker Amanda Kramer gave us a retro campy reverie of queer longing in her debut feature Please Baby Please which, though interesting, was oddly unsatisfying and insubstantial. This works much better: a genuinely strange and unsettling creation whose meaning and form can’t quite be pinned down.

It appears to be an imaginary standalone primetime US TV special which went out in some alternative dream-universe between 1975 and 1985; it is centred on one particular star, a brassy, heart-on-sleeve song-and-dance performer called Sissy St Claire, played by Sophie von Haselberg. She does musical numbers, elaborate costume changes, dance routines, goofy comedy sketches, all in the cause of entertainment. Sissy looks like a cross between Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler (Von Haselberg is in fact Midler’s daughter) with a bit of Judy Garland’s repressed agony in I Could Go on Singing.

But something is very wrong. Sissy notices out of the corner of her eye a disturbing masked figure with a knife offstage, who looks as if he wants to murder her. There are flashes of hallucinatory horror, symptoms of an impending crisis which are produced in the same cheesy way as the rest of the show. Is Sissy having a breakdown at the very moment of her professional triumph? Or is this whole thing a dream that she or someone else is having?

Everything about this film is very well observed: it really does look like a TV special of a certain period, but modified and tweaked to make it look like a nightmare cabaret. The intertitles are particularly amusing, and Sissy’s monologue observations are sometimes very interesting, particularly her comment that Nazis should really be played by unknown or emerging actors because people would have a hard time accepting established stars in this kind of role. Sissy is in danger of a catastrophe that she in some sense wants: being destroyed by the experience, a sacrifice on the altar of showbusiness. And it’s never clear if she gets the pity she craves.

Give Me Pity! is released on 10 November in UK cinemas and on digital platforms.

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