Viola Davis in the Woman King. Mia Goth in Pearl. Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans. These are some of the names that folks are buzzing about for Oscar-worthy performances in 2022, unlikely as Goth’s nomination is, given the Academy’s treatment of horror movies.
Amanda Kramer’s Give Me Pity! features what I think is an Oscar-worthy performance, and because it comes in a smallish (though ambitious) film that will probably never be seen in a theatre, it’ll be criminally ignored. Not here, though, because I’m here to tell you that Sophie Von Haselberg’s Sissy St Claire is one of the most riveting performances of any genre this year, and every bit as good as the ones I just mentioned. In Give Me Pity, the camera and the spotlight is on Sissy for nearly the entire time, watching as she experiences joy, fear, defiance, and humiliation. It’s a beautiful and terrifying sendup of American TV specials and the ravenous pursuit of fame.
Give Me Pity! opens just as you’d expect a 1980’s primetime TV special (think Carol Burnett) to do, with a rose-gold tinted frame on Haselberg’s Sissy that’s emblazoned with lens flares and mirror ball flourishes. In an intro that goes from charming to mildly-unhinged with a bizarre comparison between herself and Jesus, we learn that Sissy has dreamed of fame, of ‘making it’, her whole life. And you’d be correct in thinking that she will step over anyone and do anything to achieve it. If you think this sounds like Bette Midler circa The Rose (1979), you’d probably be in the right ballpark since Haselberg is Midler’s daughter in real life, and it shows in her absolute and seemingly-effortless command of the stage.
Sissy’s opening monologue transitions into the first of several musical numbers, played entirely straight even though there is obviously something very sinister happening backstage and in Sissy’s head. The video glitches out as the song reaches it’s peak, and glimpses of what’s either a masked intruder on set or Sissy’s own self-consciousness lurks on the sidelines as Sissy desperately tries to hold everything together. Little details in Sissy’s monologues or asides in the song-and-dance numbers portend a darkness inside her, a single-minded sociopathy when anything threatens her dream of fame.
In the skits and segments that follow, variety show style, we learn that the fiercely ambitious Sophie has a demonic aura, that a fan mail segment can be completely horrifying and heartbreaking, and when the mask starts to slip on Sissy and the show itself, sometimes the greatest nightmares come in washed-out pink and sinister purples, with a healthy dash of sequins. But the darkness keeps creeping in, culminating in a vicious and tragic final number that leaves the audience in stunned silence. There’s a long monologue near the end that feels like it outstays it’s welcome a bit, but keeping the audience (both in the film and you, the viewer) in a state of squirming discomfort is kind of vibe, so even something that would be a misstep in a different movie works here.
The music, a mix of original songs and American classics like a deranged take on ‘You’re A Grand Old Flag’ have a way of worming their way into your head, and then chewing at you from the inside as they get detuned and glitched out as the show wears on. Kramer’s soft focus and very of-the-time editing gives Give Me Pity! an incredibly strong sense of place. At no point do you feel like you’re watching a movie produced in 2022. Rather, the film plays like a VHS tape that you found in a bargain bin, or at the bottom of a box of forgotten items at a garage sale.
Amanda Kramer has, with Give Me Pity, built a Lynchian cautionary tale about the hunger for fame. She’s provided a platform, a stage, a canvas for Haselberg to smear mascara onto in a collage of glamorous horror that builds up so insidiously that you feel it yourself. And the songs aren’t bad, either.
Give Me Pity played the 2022 edition of Fantastic Fest, and is scheduled for a 2023 release from Utopia.