The Rachel Papers

(Damian Harris, UK, 1989)


If there’s anything less talked about than the American teen movie, it would have to be the British teen movie.


Yet, to cite only one moment in this genre history, the mid 1960s cycle of crazy/rebel youth films like Karel Reisz’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), Richard Lester’s The Knack … and How to Get It (1965) and Lindsay Anderson’s If … (1968) wielded a major effect on the then just-emerging Movie Brat generation in USA, as part of a lossely co-ordinated Anglo relay of the Nouvelle Vague.


Films including Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) and Francis Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now (1966) owe much more to these pioneering post-classical British youth films than to James Dean’s 1950s classics or the Rock All Night (Roger Corman, 1957) type of American B movie.


Moving on up to the 1980s, there is a not inconsiderably long line of British teen movies – including the David Puttnam/Channel 4 First Love telemovie series (Forever Young [David Drury, 1983], Those Glory Glory Days [Philip Saville, 1983]), Party Party (Terry Winsor, 1983), Julien Temple’s grandiosely ambitious mess Absolute Beginners (1986), and Beeban Kidron’s Vroom (1988) – that are contemporaneous with, but very different from, the John Hughes-style mainstream of the American teen film.


By the same token, they are also conspicuously different from the soberly naturalistic, Quality-TV drama that marks much officially exported British cinema. In fact, the British teen movie – like, in this respect, the Canadian, Australian or Hong Kong teen movie – is intriguing to study precisely as a provincial negotiation of an imperialist American generic model. In other words, these films eagerly jump in to play the teen movie game by the dominant culture’s rules, but retain spaces in and levels on which to localise – crossbreeding the USA style and subject-matter with more trenchantly specific idioms. The results, every time, are fascinating.


The Rachel Papers – among the best teen movies circulating globally during the late ‘80s/early ‘90s – explicitly plays on the intersection of several, available traditions. Like many a contemporary teen film, it is premised on multiple crossovers: not only is the likely-lad hero, Charles Highway (Dexter Fletcher) upwardly mobile, crossing class lines in his sexual pursuits; but also, his principal object of desire is American (Ione Skye as Rachel).


In its generic texture, director Damian (son of Richard) Harris (who later made the Goldie Hawn thriller Deceived [1991] in USA) skilfully mixes a certain Britishness (more on this below) with an effortless, Hughes-type high-skid gloss (an into-camera narrator as in Ferris Bueller's Day Off [1986], and an analytic computer as in Weird Science [1985], to rocket the story along, complete with self-commentary). From this angle, it’s a wonderfully musical piece of work, driven by rhythms, riffs and sampled songs.


From another angle, the film seems unmistakeably poised between two moments in British cinema history, a balance facilitated by the fact that it’s an adaptation/update of Martin Amis’ debut 1973 novel: it initially comes on like an Alfie-type tract, typically misogynistic in its “how to be flash and pull birds” spiel (it’s a Games People Play story); but then it modulates into a young-prick-coming-to-recognise-how-little-he-knows-of-women-and-love number, thus very much a British version of Fresh Horses (David Anspaugh, 1988), with a virtually identical Life Goes On coda.


What’s so British about it? Coming from neither the Quality tradition nor the romantic, renegade alternative (Powell/Pressburger, Ken Russell: what Raymond Durgnat called the Great British Phantasmagoria), but from a grittier, more ribald strain of TV naturalism, what The Rachel Papers dishes up in buckets, so different from the average American teen movie, is something I can only label as a certain muckiness – particularly in relation to bodily functions. It is a refreshingly candid film on many matters (I suspect it was this candidness that consigned it to VHS-only release in Australia), including condoms used for safe sex, large tissues for wanking, and (as Frankie Goes to Hollywood sagely advised) for lads to relax, whilst fucking, when they want to come.


More than anything else, The Rachel Papers is about a British male teenager’s mucky relation to his own body and, still more painfully, to the first female body he has to really (I mean really) deal with. The film’s best part takes from the first few weeks of Charles’ and Rachel’s non-stop sex (rarely has this hedonistic rapture been better captured on screen!) to all the icky things about Rachel that disturb our hero rather more than they should: her cigarettes under the bed, discarded nostril hairs, her walking in on him shitting in the toilet, her menstrual flow (“a small price to pay for great sex”, as a wise pal points out). Here, growing up (the teen-to-adult rite of passage) means coming to terms with exactly these sorts of realities. And three cheers for that.


On the other hand, it’s also a film about the emptiness of teenage love: how little these two people truly get to know each other – or we get to know of them. The entire relationship here plays itself out, ultimately, via very sparse character psychology or interactive reciprocity. This is another aspect of its general skidding-over–the surface approach. The idea is foregrounded when Rachel accuses Charles’ “bullshit” – but then reveals that her own tales of the Dad who abandoned her were wholly invented. Young lives (and tangles) are so makeshift and transitory, beyond the true or false …


There are so many good things in The Rachel Papers. For instance: a clever managing of story threads deliberately left in the background, such as the domestic bickering between Charles’ sister Jenny (Lesley Sharp) and brother-in-law Norman (Jonathan Pryce) – which, as we learn casually later on, relates to the hidden fact that she is pregnant.


Last but not least: James Spader as DeForest (Rachel’s ex) pops into the proceedings periodically. So watch for the bit where he walks in on her and Charles lying together on the floor: in the time it takes for DeForest to get from the door to the bureau, Spader enacts every trademarked mannerism we know and love him for. For this, and much more, watch The Rachel Papers.

© Adrian Martin October 1990 / November 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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