“I’m gonna go home and wank over your Instagram pictures, but not the ones with your mouth open.” Pete says to Mandy early on in Rare Beasts, Billie Piper’s patchily brilliant excursion into the ongoing joust that is male/female relations.
Mandy (Piper, who also wrote and directs) has “big teeth”, big cartoon features generally, something both Pete (Leo Bill) and Mandy agree on. He puts the wank/Instagram remark to her at the end of one of those date evenings of semi-aggressive courtship conducted at one remove. Insults, put-downs, ribaldry, flirtatiousness and dirty talk have all been used as a way of avoiding mutual male/female honesty, or perhaps as a way of approaching it with an exit strategy of plausible deniability.
Doris Day and Rock Hudson would recognise the situation, though not the edgy, frank, confessional tone, which is closer to that of I Hate Suzie, the TV series Piper wrote with Lucy Prebble. While also majoring on chaotic lives and the particularity of millennial bullshit, Rare Beasts is more of an out-and-out sex comedy than I Hate Suzie. As single mum Mandy negotiates the rapids of male/female interaction, Piper’s main concern is modern women on the horns of the feminist dilemma. Mandy wants men to be men, but also for them to allow her to be any sort of woman she wants to be.
Leo Bill is particularly good as Pete, an angry man not even sure what he’s angry about, and a Christian to boot, which sits oddly with Pete’s foul-mouthed confrontational attitude, to “women” especially, who he views with a conspiratorial eye – “what women really want” is one of Pete’s abiding concerns, because, deep down, he probably suspects they don’t want him. A brilliantly played grotesque… with complexity (and possibly modelled on Piper’s ex-husband, anti-woke activist Laurence Fox?).
Some of the best scenes are of Pete taking Mandy back to meet his similarly religious family, where Piper’s gift for pulling faces is put to good use. As well as a world beater in cake-out-in-the-rain devastation, Piper is a genius at the inner eye roll and has a gallery of WTF expressions ready to go. She’s also brilliant at deadpan delivery. “My big hand,” she says at one point, absolutely flatly, which got a laugh from me, since what she’s referring back to is Pete’s concern about how small his cock looks when her “big” hand is holding it.
Piper does not spare herself either. As well as the cracks about her big teeth (get your defence in early), there’s a sequence where Mandy takes her clothes off for Pete, running through the differences between the ideal body and the body she has, one with a few miles on the clock, culminating with a “and this is my arsehole… do you like it?” Ta-daa. Again, get your defence in early.
Perhaps emboldened by Lucy Prebble, Piper mines her own life for material. Famous since she was 15, first as a singer then as an actor, she can draw on 20-odd years of experience in the media eye, for example, in those scenes set in the writing room at the hipster production company where Mandy works – a hellhole of “free thinking” groupthink run by a passive-aggressive bully.
For all the apercus and bawdy jokes, though, at a certain point Rare Beasts runs out of gags, or decides it doesn’t need them any more, and attempts a turn into Mike Leigh dramatic territory, particularly in scenes with Kerry Fox and David Thewlis as Mandy’s mum and dad. Mum’s a sweary, smoky, drinky depressive, dad’s a boozy shagging manic-depressive.
They’re both very good (when are they not?) but the gear-change is unsettling. This is a story about a life careering about like a supermarket trolley with a wonky wheel. Mum and dad’s lives, by contrast, run on tramlines.
A niggle in what’s both a thoughtful and entertaining film, where Piper pits the old certainties (clear and supportive but oppressive) against the new ones (free and exciting but isolating). Her answer: “it’s complicated” as Facebook used to say in it relationships tick box.
At some point in the film, at a wedding, Mandy meets the bride, an attractive young woman whose tits are almost falling out of her virginal white dress. Lurching drunkenly, and after a disdainful swipe at metrosexual men, the bride describes herself as a “post post post post feminist”, in which any or all or none of those “posts” might be ironic. Welcome to Billie Piper’s world.
Rare Beasts – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021