Written by, directed by and starring Billie Piper, Rare Beasts, a self-styled ‘anti-romcom’, is a manic Munch-like scream about what it’s like to be a modern, thirty-something woman trying to have it all while there’s a crisis all around.
Inside Billie Piperby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Piper is Mandy. She’s trying to have it all but she’s on a desperate treadmill, running faster and faster, in a chaotic, stylish, life. Though Rare Beasts was made previously, it’s similar to Piper’s role in her recent television series I Hate Suzie.
Mandy is career-driven, working for a smallish television production company; she’s the single parent of Larch (Toby Woolf), a difficult seven-year-old who possibly has ADHD; her elderly parents (David Thewlis and Kerry Fox) are splitting up and her mother has been diagnosed with cancer; and she’s inexplicably punishing herself by working on an unworkable relationship with her unprepossessing and unsympathetic colleague Pete (Leo Bill). It’s a full house of challenging situations.
Rare Beasts is made up of fast-moving, disconnected flashes disconnected, much like Mandy’s life where there’s never enough time and she spreads herself too thin. As in Promising Young Woman, there’s a striking first scene that sets the tone for the central character’s inner space. In Rare Beasts this takes place in a restaurant where Mandy and Pete are on what most people would see as a horrific first date that wouldn’t lead on to more: Pete says he finds women “intolerable” and Mandy is sick in the street.
Everything is seen from Mandy’s brittle perspective. She is a bundle of anxiety and self-help techniques (“Even though I feel scared and angry, I still love and respect myself,” she repeats) to allay her self-esteem. At times her narrative veers into surrealistic fantasy – for instance, a Greek chorus of woman who speak for all woman in their comments on Mandy’s life.
The word that has cropped up most often in comments is “audacious”. It certainly is. Piper has unique voice and directorial style (though she claims Paul Thomas Anderson as an influence), and she has lots to say. Rare Beasts is raw. Piper flays herself emotionally on screen: there’s a scene where she strips in front of a bemused Pete, pointing out each bodily flaw (in her perception) as each garment comes off to make sure he is aware of them before they can have sex for the first time. His response shows he is so the wrong person to do this self-immolation for.
This is one of many uncomfortable moments. A lavish middle-class wedding – with Lily James as a traditional bride – that Pete takes her to is excruciating.
Rare Beasts covers a lot of ground – maybe trying to do too much – in its short, 87-minute, running time. The film will definitely strike a chord with so many women in its treatment of endemic institutional misogyny, feminist values, gender roles, female liberation, relationships and identity in contemporary society. It’s angry, confrontational, fuelled by nervous energy, but also rather confused and confusing. The screenplay was written several years ago, though the film itself was made two years ago in 2019, and Piper has said in an interview with inews.co.uk recently of Mandy that, rather than her being in a dysfunctional relationship, “when I watch it now it feels like a very dysfunctional relationship with herself”. Rare Beasts is a bold, flawed first film that will surely, excitingly, lead on to more in future.
Rare Beasts premiered at the Venice Biennale, screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 21 May 2021 in the UK.