LFF 2019: Rare Beasts Review
Billie Piper’s directorial debut begins, as many romantic comedies do, with a bad date. Mandy (Piper) sits across from Pete (Leo Bill, the washing machine mechanic with the golden voice from In Fabric), who’s in the middle of a snide tirade including - amongst other incendiary remarks - comments about rape and murder. Upon stepping outside, Mandy is promptly sick on the pavement. Unlike other rom-coms, it is then revealed that - far from a rethink of life choices for both parties resulting in a happy-go-lucky quest for true love - the plan is to continue dating.
Such is the mode of address for this interrogation and exploration of modern love, judged halfway between playful comedy and withering drama. Character dynamics play out in a scabrous cacophony of voices, with everyone saying what they truly think out loud all the time: imagine Fleabag without the fourth wall breaks but more overt statements about what it’s like to be a put-upon woman in contemporary Britain.
“I’m gonna talk you through what I physically hate about myself” Mandy declares before she and Pete have sex. Other women on the street chant “I love and respect myself” with the fervour of a religious sermon. Whether Mandy, her mother (Kerry Fox on scenery-feasting form) or even her young son, every character is wound up and let go, screaming and spewing their neuroses.
Moments of it are eviscerating, many sections are tiresome: the strange half-gimmick of having everyone onscreen speak honestly (whether plainly or through monologue) is an admirably daring choice (not least for a debut feature), but becomes grating and eye-rolling by the halfway point. The aural assault of conversations, rows and breakdowns as Mandy and Pete navigate their strained relationship crosses the line between intentionally uncomfortable and just plain irritating, the many observations and rants ringing more hollow with every mixed metaphor and fumbled thesis.
Musings on love, sex, parenthood, childcare, loneliness and regret are all reflected largely through the prism of Mandy, her mother and her father (a fantastically deadbeat David Thewlis) sitting despondently in their grotty kitchen with a six-pack of off-brand beers and endless cigarettes. It goes without saying that Piper is sensational, giving a whirling dervish of a performance even in scenes that demand little more than a scoff and a sharp draw of second-hand smoke. She even finds ways to shine during clumsier moments of visual exposition - working from her own script, she seems at peace with uneven material that leaves her capable co-stars looking somewhat lost.
The fact it works for any length of time at all is a remarkable tribute to Piper as a director. Emotional uncertainty aside, the film moves with vigorous momentum and technical flair, making great use of locations and light - an epilogue in the grounds of Alexandra Palace is mounted beautifully by cinematographer Patrick Meller. Heck, there’s even a split-diopter to be found by the steely-eyed cineastes in the audience.
As an experimental short or even a movie-length music video (one thinks of Florence Welch’s The Odyssey), Rare Beasts would be a barnstormer. Despite the shortcomings it exhibits as a narrative feature, the strengths and promise it displays for Piper as a fresh new voice in British cinema are incredibly exciting.
Rare Beasts premieres as part of the London Film Festival's 'Laugh' strand on Thursday 10th October.