Rare Beasts, 2019.
Directed by Billie Piper.
Starring Billie Piper, Leo Bill, David Thewlis, Kerry Fox, Toby Woolf and Lily James.
A woman with a cynical attitude to relationships falls in love with a religious, traditional man.
The term “anti-romcom” gets thrown around a lot. Everything from (500) Days of Summer to Before Sunrise has been lauded for provided a more acidic take on the common tropes and tearful clichés of cinematic romance. The latest filmmaker to step into the breach is Billie Piper with Rare Beasts, making her debut behind the camera as director in addition to scripting duties and playing the starring role. Whether Piper drew from her own high-profile marriages to DJ Chris Evans and actor-turned-political-troll Laurence Fox is unclear, but the result is a spiky, angry movie with plenty to say.
We meet Mandy on what initially seems to be a disastrous date with Pete (Leo Bill), in which he confesses “I find women, in the main, intolerable” and she tartly accuses him of making “classic rapist remarks”. Soon, though, they’re in a relationship and Pete is introduced to Mandy’s son Larch (Toby Woolf), just as he has a public meltdown over a doughnut-shaped balloon. What follows is a fractured, frenetic account of a relationship, which serves as much as a deconstruction of modern love as it does as a movie romance.
It would’ve been easy for Piper to coast with her directorial debut, telling a conventional romantic story with a sharply-penned script. Instead, though, she takes admirable big swings at every turn. This is a movie packed with acerbic dialogue exchanges, but also with audaciously bizarre shot choices – say hello, split diopter fans – and even a tap-dance sequence. It’s brave stuff and not everything lands, but the spiky, ragged sense of anything-goes invention gives it real charm. Bizarrely, the film is every bit as playfully sardonic as it is searingly angry.
Piper’s central performance is every bit as mercurial as the movie around her. Mandy is a woman driven by exasperation, cynicism and a no-fucks-given undercurrent of snark. She’s an unreliable narrator, but one with an intense awareness of the world around her, with multiple sequences literalising the constant battle of insecurities and self-hate reverberating around the minds of the women she passes in the street. Piper, though, never loses the humanity and individualism at the centre of her character. The film is not interested in depicting men and women as duelling monoliths. It’s sharper than that.
Stylistically, it’s interesting to watch Rare Beasts in the wake of the success of Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-garlanded Promising Young Woman. While the target of Piper’s story is dating and romance rather than rape culture, the movies share a desire to twist and subvert romcom tropes through aesthetic as well as subject matter. Rare Beasts is wickedly funny and razor-sharp in its deadpan dialogue and outrageous comedy. Leo Bill, who was so brilliant in Peter Strickland’s beguiling In Fabric, is an excellent and abrasive foil to Piper, while David Thewlis is an enjoyably feckless father figure.
Above all else, though, Piper deserves credit for penning a film so sharply observed and visually bold. It’s prickly and wobbly and doesn’t go down easily, but that feels appropriate for a story which seeks to thread the needle of dating in the 21st century. Between this and her work as star and co-creator of I Hate Suzie, it seems Piper is entering an exciting new phase of her already sparkling career – the zero-fucks phase.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.