Movie Review: ‘Rare Beasts’ explores the chaos of modern femininity
Director: Billie Piper
Writers: Billie Piper
Stars: Billie Piper, Leo Bill, Lily James, David Thewlis
Synopsis: Mandy, a career-driven single mother, falls in love with a charming man named Pete.
Billie Piper’s directorial debut follows Mandy, a thirty-something single mother, navigating parenthood, a career, and romance as a millennial woman in London. I had the privilege of seeing a live preview of the film with an in-person Q&A. The film’s writer, director, and star Billie Piper was joined by Mia Bays from Birds Eye View; a not-for-profit that celebrates and champions the work of women in the film industry.
Depicted as an “anti-romcom”, the film skews what we have been taught to want and expect from on-screen love stories, and presents a welcome and refreshing interrogation of what it means to be a woman in modern society. Piper stated that she wanted to present a “common female crisis”, and the film begins with Mandy ritualistically tapping her temples (a therapeutic tool to manage anxiety known as Emotional Freedom Technique), while repeating the mantra “even though I feel scared and angry, I love and respect myself”. In Piper’s film, the internal is externalized, and we pan across women hurrying through the street, frantically tapping and breathlessly repeating “money, cock, promotion” under their breath. Piper spoke of wanting to address the unhealthy suggestion that women can and should aspire to “have it all”, and the anxiety that these unrealistic aspirations can cause. This early scene in the film effectively presents a shared female anxiety, and a constant attempt to “keep it together” beneath a smiling facade.
Mandy balances her strained relationship with her father, terminally ill mother, and young son with behavioral tics. Alongside this, she navigates a joyless job, and a masochistic romantic relationship with a man who announces that he finds women “in the main, intolerable”. The misogynistic Pete lacks any redeeming features, and in a rom-com would serve as a mere stumbling block or learning curve in the protagonist’s search for true love. However, while initially implausible that someone could stay with a man who tells them their teeth are too big and breasts too small, it is also all too familiar. Detrimental to her fragile self-esteem, Pete reflects back at her the things she hates most about herself. Whether we ourselves have fallen into similarly dysfunctional relationships or witnessed those of friends, it can often be a painful reality and can take a long time to realize and free ourselves from them.
The film is stylistically theatrical, and at times transgresses into fantasy and even musical sequences. One scene in particular boldly transports us into the chaotic world of Mandy’s mind. We see her enter a room where her parents are arguing, and she begins to tap dance, in a sort of brightly colored Lynchian nightmare. Dancing amid chaos is a powerful visual metaphor for one of the film’s themes: trying to hold it together in a chaotic and overwhelming world. Intense close-ups of Piper’s face transport us into this world, as well as the film’s pivotal use of sound. From the manic sensory overload of London hubbub to the electronic haze of The Chemical Brothers, we become immersed within her frantic psyche.
“I wanted people to behave on screen in a familiar way to me”, Piper stated in a radio interview. In the post Fleabag era, there are thankfully more honest mainstream representations of “the modern woman”, but Piper acknowledges there is still a way to go for the examination of the female experience in film. We may not agree with some of Mandy’s decisions (mainly her taste in men), but we believe in her as a real and convincing character. One character in the film tells Mandy “no one wants to read about miserable women”, but Piper confesses she enjoys reading about female pain. She noted that “within the pain, there is also a lot of laughs”, and this is certainly reflected in the film’s dark humor. At one point, Mandy’s dad tells Pete: “she used to be such a funny child: she used to write us these little love letters, and then often little death threats”.
There is a brilliant scene towards the end of the film, in which a group of women stand in solidarity with Mandy as she finally confronts Pete. Resembling a Greek chorus, they collectively voice a shared and unfiltered female consciousness, and call out Pete’s “classic male bullshit”. Mandy speaks to Pete in what is effectively her own internal monologue. The women shout words of sisterhood encouragement, cheering her on. But the film does not present a one-sided, “correct” version of feminism. When Mandy hesitantly declares: “I want a man”, her female chorus become angry, deeming this a negative desire. Here, the film essentially turns the camera on the audience, asking us to interrogate and perhaps re-evaluate our own ideas of feminism and what it means to be a woman. Can you still call yourself a feminist if you declare you want a man? (The answer is of course yes). Feminism is so often mistakenly equated with “man-hating”, when this is just not the case, and can perpetuate a deeply damaging portrayal.
Rare Beasts is a powerful examination of female interiority and a refreshing depiction of womanhood in all its complexities and messiness. Its vibrant color palette belies the film’s bleak tone, which bubbles and screams beneath the surface. This is fitting for a film that challenges superficial femininity, in a way as bold and fierce as its title suggests.