Director: Billie Piper
Stars: Billie Piper, Leo Bill, Lily James
Pop star… Doctor Who sidekick… national treasure and a very good actor, Billie Piper has run the gamut already. But she’s not done. Not nearly. Chiseling into the third decade of a varied career, Rare Beasts finds her working both sides of the camera. Writer/director of her own showcase and a chameleonic talent in fine form.
Her ‘anti-romcom’ sets out its stall from the off. Piper’s Mandy trades blows with co-worker Pete (Leo Bill) on what seems like the date from hell. At a spirited pace we cover religious conservatism, misogyny and rape culture. But, at the same time, Piper’s framing of the scene appears within a pair of unseen but bold quotation marks. As though both parties are reciting a pre-formulated argument. Do they genuinely loathe one another, or is this a ruse born of actual affection? Are they exhibitionists?
Piper’s unfurling tale takes its cues (seemingly) from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. There’s a shared affinity for warped whimsy and isolated oddballs. Pete’s ever-present suits feel like a nominal homage to the costuming in PTA’s off-kilter masterpiece, while the music provided by Nathan Coen and Johnny Lloyd similarly makes conscious echoes. These feelings persist.
Pete is almost always contemptible, with defects peeling out like ticker tape from an old-timey stock market machine. He is angry, belligerent, stubborn (a scene where he throws a tantrum during dinner feels like another callback to Punch-Drunk Love). Yet, it seems that Mandy is particularly, perversely drawn to his array of failings. What we seem to have here is PTA’s movie if told from Emily Watson’s perspective. What would a woman who fell for Barry Egan be like?
It certainly redresses the balance in terms of character study. Mandy is a (sort of) single parent, a working woman, an atheist and nihilist, does her make-up on the bus. Piper judges none of this, but underscores Mandy’s tiredness when others outspokenly do so. When told she has “terrible energy” but is “so pretty”, she candidly walks out of the room… only to get a chair so that she can smash a window. There’s a flavour of wish fulfillment here, one suspects.
Further time spent with Mandy and Pete reveals a faltering, fledgling couple seeking out new ways of communicating with one another. In the insipid green kitchen that she shares with her parents (dependable turns from Kerry Fox and David Thewlis), Mandy sits Pete down – just the two of them – and disrobes, cataloging the areas of her body that cause her distress, worry and occasionally pride. It’s a naked scene in a literal sense, but also in terms of one person courageously giving themselves to another. When Mandy hops into Pete’s lap at the scene’s culmination it feels like someone relishing an act of deeply personal generosity… and devotion. If only he deserved it in any way, shape or form…
A drunken argument between the two of them at a wedding reveals Pete’s building vitriol against women, paints him as an abuser; increasingly difficult to forgive or even contend with. Bill’s performance is impressively monsterish, channeling Laurence Fox and remorselessly laying bare the pitiful insecurities of intimidated men.
Rare Beasts often feels a little too keen to seem brash and daring. Obnoxious statements open conversations, frequent little morsels intended to shock or confound. Piper’s dialogue is spicy, memorable, alive… but it also lacks authenticity. Those bold quotation marks spring up everywhere. They’re part of the overall character of the piece. It’s enjoyably rancid, like mango that’s just gone over. But it also keeps us at a distance.
In a manner that feels similar to Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, Rare Beasts is likely to polarise those who come into contact with it. The aforementioned garishness will confound some, who’d no doubt prefer a more grounded examination of a mutually destructive relationship. But Piper isn’t interested in giving us that. At least, not this time. The choices here – including the overt stylisation – are all deliberate. There’s verve and eagerness that translates into an overripe and puckish feature debut.
Piper, like the aforementioned Fennell, may well refine herself, and there’ll be work to cherish in her evolution. But there’s also a lot in the here and now. If the strong female voices in British filmmaking are keen to work in such lurid colours then at least our home grown cinema feels alive and agitated again. Something that hasn’t seemed the case in a good long while. That’s worth a lot all by itself.