Rita, Sue and Bob Too is the kind of film that is worthy of appreciation even if it isn’t particularly enjoyable. It’s the kind of film whose criticisms of a certain era and people are so acute, it comes off as slightly jarring and unnerving. Yet, despite the wall of “enjoyableness” being erected, Alan Clarke’s compelling film is worth a look nonetheless.
Bob is a bourgeoisie looking moron who starts an affair with two teenaged school girls, both of whom are from very poor areas of Yorkshire. Their relationship, which is taboo in and of itself, creates friction between Bob’s wife (rightfully so) and Rita and Sue’s home life as well.
I may be at a disadvantage being woefully unacquainted with the politics of Margaret Thatcher beyond the cursory knowledge that she was, for the most part, disliked, but if one reads the film as a critique of Thatcher’s rigid societal ideals, than, by all means have at it. It’s a blisteringly strange films that has absolutely no problem dealing with touchy subjects head on (unconventional relationships, class differences, domestic abuse, adultery).
Initially, Rita and Sue, (Siobhan and Michelle Holmes) seem naïve and even stupid, as when Bob first seduces them, he has to basically give them the “sex talk” as if he were talking to fifth graders. They don’t really know what a condom is and they don’t know the mechanisms of sex. And while it would be hard to bale them as “mature” per se, even by the end of the film, they undoubtedly seem to evolve in a curious manner to an extent where their ignorance of the aforementioned matters seems insignificant in comparison to their ability to recognize their situation and, what is even more, defend it.
Bob, being presumably upper middle class, is for the two young women, who are very lower class, a foot in the door and symbolic of a comfortable status. Sex may not necessarily be the only thing on their mind, given that both Rita and Sue’s homes are rather dilapidated and rife with personal misfortune that director Alan Clarke subtly nods to in the mise-en-scene. Bob’s home is immaculately furnished and, on the exterior, reminiscent of the kind of picket fence model that permeates “the American Dream”, Rita and Sue live in an area where there’s a beat up car in the front “lawn” area and paint is peeling off of the walls. (Painted on the brick reads “Thatcher’s a Nutter”.) The two often babysit for Bob’s two children, and before their job officially begins for the night, they watch the well put together wife choose stylish clothing that both of them could only dream of. They don’t sneer, though. They do their duty and suggest whatever is nice. Yet there’s a sharp contrast in what Bob’s wife is wearing and what Rita and Sue are wearing: bland, somewhat pastel colored school clothes.
That Rita and Sue understand the class difference without overtly acknowledging it in a ham-fisted manner gives both the director and the film an edge of knowingness. They’re not taking advantage of him exactly, but they are utilizing him to get out of a toxic environment. It goes to show that Bob is more the moron in the situation than either of them, as they are quite quick to call him out on his tomfoolery and even the notion that he might be unfaithful (the logic being that their relationships were adulterous ventures).
It isn’t quite as Design for Living as I was expecting, eschewing a ménage a trois setup for something messier and, to be honest, less “fun”. For, underlying the entire film, is a significant bleakness. Clarke’s wit stings enough to make the audience wince, the scenarios within the film escalating ever more. It ends up not only being cynical about the politics of England (for, even someone as ill-informed as myself can suss that out), but about relationships in general. Rita and Sue, through each scene, become smarter and more on point with whatever defense they would need in the future. Understanding that Bob is a philanderer means understanding that any man has the ability to be a philanderer, and, what’s more, a prattling idiot.
Such a cynical attitude might be indicative of Alan Clarke’s lean towards slightly absurdist social realism. Think the love child of Ken Loach and Harmony Korine: biting humor, incredibly dark tone, and sharp critique, all rolled into one interesting, if not particularly enjoyable, satire.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is available on limited edition blu-ray from Twilight Time.